Whitgift School scored the only try in a tightly contested final against Wellington College and forged a 5-0 win to secure the Esher President’s Cup for the fourth time in as many years.
As is usually the case with pre-season tournaments the participating schools were at varying stages of preparation for the serious stuff that is to come, and coaches were looking to offer plenty of opportunities to squad members. With four schools in Pool 1, those games comprised 10 minute halves, while teams in the three-school Pool 2 played 15 minutes each way. Thankfully the high temperatures from earlier in the week had abated, and a sunny afternoon saw plenty of spectator support.
Whitgift and Wellington quickly established themselves as likely favourites to take their Pools with 30-0 wins (no conversion attempts were taken in the competition) against Emanuel and Harrow respectively. This was hardly a surprise, with several of Whitgift’s U18 Cup winning side’s backs returning and most of their 2018 U15 Cup winning side now in the Lower 6th, while the core of Wellington’s unbeaten 2017 U15 Cup winning side is now at the top of the school (though the captain of that side, Fin Baxter was spectating after his return from international duty in South Africa).
Wellington looked very sharp against their perennial rivals, with fly half Monty Bradbury looking to get the ball wide and wing Cassius Cleaves making several impressive runs and crossing for Wellington’s second try, after No 8 Marcus Rhodes had opened the scoring. Highlight of the second half was a lovely line taken by full back Hector Elrington which opened up the defence, back row player Ted Johnson securing the score. It seems unlikely that this result will be a reliable predictor of how things will pan out when the schools meet for their block fixture in November.
Millfield faced back to back games with the two Croydon based sides so needed to make full use of their squad. Against Trinity they trailed early on before levelling the scores before half time and then saw a good opportunity to take the lead with an attacking scrum on the Trinity 5m line. However Millfield were penalised for illegal binding and Trinity broke out past half way, a tremendous run by vice-captain Luca Owen looked like ending in a try, but he was stopped just short of the line by a tackle that was deemed sufficiently high by referee John Payton for him to award a penalty try (five points only in this tournament). A famous win for Trinity looked on the cards but Millfield were not finished and scored an equalising try on the final play.
A very different Millfield side then took the field immediately afterwards to face Whitgift in another closely contested game. Whitgift enjoyed the early territorial advantage, pressuring the Millfield line after a line-out and driving maul in the left corner, but the defence held out. It seemed that the danger was past when Millfield won a scrum and put in a clearance kick, but that was run back by fly half Connor Slevin who cut through the defence before offloading to full back Ben Fitzgerald, but again the defence held firm and half-time was eventually reached with no scores on the board. Changes in personnel after the interval included the arrival of hooker Piero Noah (Player of the Match at Twickenham in the 2018 U15 Cup Final). Fitzgerald and Slevin and combined effectively on the left to take play deep into the Millfield 22 and possession was retained, left wing Gon De Clercq crossing to open the scoring. After a well-judged grubber kick from Slevin had given Whitgift an attacking line-out in the right corner, the inevitable driving maul saw Noah peel off the back and force his way over for what proved to be the final score, giving Whitgift a 10-0 win.
Trinity found themselves involved in another close game, this time against Emanuel on the main pitch, falling behind to a well taken try by forward Fin Little after Emanuel had started with great purpose and repeatedly pressured the Trinity line. The Wandsworth based school, with scrum half Oscar Wainman leading the side, continued to frustrate Trinity’s attempts to generate any meaningful scoring opportunities until the very end, when Trinity at last generated some momentum, moving the ball through the hands for Sam Heape to secure an equalising try.
Trinity then faced an immediate switch to the other pitch to face local rivals Whitgift, who always looked the likely winners, the score ending up 25-0. While this was going on, the deciding game for second place in Pool 2 saw Harrow face their North West London neighbours St Benedict’s Ealing (Wellington having already defeated Bennies 30-0). Unfortunately both sides took the field wearing all white, which made play hard to follow, though offering the announcer the chance to have some fun (“that was a try for the team in white” and “for those of you watching in black and white…” etc.). Harrow had a bit too much power up front for a young Bennies side and ran out 15-0 winners.
The final pool game between Millfield and Emanuel followed, with 2nd and 3rd places in Pool 1 to be decided. Millfield’ speedy backs gave them the advantage over the South London side, with wing Finn McNulty showing excellent pace, and ran out 20-0 winners.
Playoffs between the 2nd and 3rd placed teams in each pool saw Millfield face Harrow, and Trinity meet St Benedict’s. In the latter match-up Bennies got off to an impressive start, good handling creating an overlap for speedy wing (and England Schools 200m finalist) Jak Mensah who ran in from half way to open the scoring. The Croydon side fought back however and ended up 25-10 winners. Meanwhile on the main pitch Millfield played some of their best rugby of the afternoon against Harrow, securing an early score. Again, the Millfield backs showed excellent pace, even with Will Joseph (also back from England U18 duty in South Africa) only a water carrier. McNulty again got on the score sheet and centre Tom Bushell and full back Dylan Evans also caught the eye. Evans first created the second try and then rounded off Millfield’s scoring with a fine solo effort in the right corner. Harrow seized the opportunity for a late consolation score from the effective driving maul, the game ending 25-5 in Millfield’s favour.
In the final Whitgift were quick out of the blocks, creating a chance for De Clercq on the left and enjoying plenty of possession inside the Wellington half. Wellington gradually worked their way into the game and finished the first half strongly. After the interval, the decisive score came from a very powerful carry on the left by Noah, following which play was taken on and flanker Reis Norman got the deciding score. Whitgift almost extended their lead after a superb break and cross-kick by Fitzgerald, but the ball was knocked forward 5 metres out. With time running out, the Whitgift forwards were content to retain possession inside the Wellington half with the pick-and-go tactic, before kicking the ball off the field to clinch the Cup, deservedly so on the balance of play.
This tournament rarely if ever disappoints and all the participating schools will have taken away valuable experiences, even if some were missing key players. Full marks go to the arguably less fancied sides for being prepared to pit themselves against some of the top names.