In perhaps the most hotly anticipated school game of the season Sedbergh claimed a 20-10 victory over Wellington College at Broadstreet RFC on Wednesday night, keeping the race for the Daily Mail Trophy alive.
The victory came just four days after Sedbergh had made it three years since their last defeat and leaves them just a game away from an unbeaten season in a row, they face Millfield in their last game next week.
It was a clinical performance in a school game of the highest level, inflicting a first defeat of the season on the St Joseph’s Festival champions, Wellington College, who would have all but sealed the Trophy had they won this most epic of schoolboy games. As it is Sedbergh now sit top of the table, in pole position for a third title in a row after this most clinical and disciplined of performances.
Wellington College had the bulk of the early possession and territory for the opening twenty-five minutes or so as they used their powerful carries such as Marcus Rhodes, Ted Johnson, and skipper Fin Baxter to drive Sedbergh deeper and deeper into their own territory.
Try as they might though, they just could not breach the Sedbergh try line, with the Cumbrian side’s back row of Iain Carmichael, Rhys Tait, and vice captain John Bailey, all three survivors from last year’s game, playing like men possessed at the breakdown. Bailey won two turnovers early in that period, one on his own try line, crucially releasing the pressure valve on his side.
Wellington were on top, with fly half Monty Bradbury trying to pull the strings and tease out the Sedbergh defenders, but their discipline in defence was utterly immense, in terms of both penalty count and, more importantly, decision making.
Sedbergh did have one half chance through a break from inside centre Diego Warnken Araya, but Wellington tidied up well and got back on the front foot. Wales U18 second row Carwyn Tuipulotu was starting to have a growing influence for Sedbergh though, beginning with two crucial tackles on his own try line, eventually leading to a turnover.
His emotion was becoming clear and it was lifting the other players, a sense of increased tempo and urgency was came across the men in brown as the half ticked towards half time still at 0-0. Murray Redpath, whose brother Cameron was part of the winning side in this fixture a couple of years ago, was central to that tempo, taking a quick tap penalty, and then another quick tap from a free kick at the scrum shortly after.
From that injection of pace Sedbergh were suddenly on the front foot for the first time really in an attacking sense, and it was that man Tuipulotu that got them further on the front foot when, from a standing start, he blasted through three or four would-be tackles to edge towards the Wellington College 22.
With the defence on the back foot, Redpath again was buzzing and darted around the fringe. It was as though he had bamboozled everyone and suddenly the young half back was facing the last remaining Wellington College defender, with hooker Lawrence Mason on his shoulder, supporting brilliantly as ever. Unselfishly Redpath released Mason for the run in, with Johnson converting to give Sedbergh a 7-0 half time lead that must have felt like a punch in the gut for Wellington, who had enjoyed so much of the early dominance.
It was clinical from Sedbergh though, so disciplined and accurate in defence throughout the half and then seizing on their one real opening in attack to take the lead.
Early in the second half Wellington College resumed that pattern of the first half, battering away at the Sedbergh defence, though this time with renewed accuracy at the breakdown to counter the work Sedbergh had done there in the first half. Still though it seemed as though that wall would not break, Tom Lanni putting in a stunning cover tackle, and a couple of lineouts just going awry.
Bradbury had other ideas though as he decided to up the ante with some ambitious wide passing to stretch the defence. It worked a treat, tempting Sedbergh into the intercept attempt and releasing Alex Teague for the simplest for run ins on the right wing. Max Thomas converted to tie the game up, but then came a huge momentum shift in the game when Sedbergh fly half lined up a kick from well over 40 metres out and sent it sailing over for a 10-7 lead. Suddenly the game felt as though it had moved from a brutally physical slow burner to a game that was ready to really start fizzing.
Fizz it really did a short few minutes later when Sedbergh ran a move from a scrum on the left hand side of the Wellington 22 that was simply a joy to behold. Taking the ball to the line Johnson had three genuine options in play, plus the option of carrying himself, with the enormous Lanni a short option, another option deep and wide, and then Fraser Jones on a line out of nowhere out of the back. He sailed through on an outside arc virtually untouched, such were the number of convincing options.
It put Sedbergh 15-7 up in such glorious fashion but the gap was shortly closed to 15-10 with an inch perfect Max Thomas penalty for Wellington. With fifteen minutes to go and memories of so many fixtures between these two going right down to the wire, notably last year’s where a Harry Shiel try and spectacular Tom Curtis conversion saw Sedbergh win at the death, it felt like we could be in for another grandstand close to this game.
Sedbergh’s replacement scrum half James Naylor had other ideas though. As the second half had gone on, Sedbergh’s influence in an attacking sense was growing, Johnson was looking wider, and Tuipolotu’s carrying was Chabal-esque as defenders swarmed to him to try to haul him down. It was tiring the defence and Naylor took full advantage, seeing what Redpath had done from the same position in the first half and raising him as from his own ten metre line he picked up at the base of the ruck and burst through the gap in the fringe defence.
One on one as he surged though he almost slowed to look for support, but such was the sniping nature of the break, not to mention the sheer toll the physicality of the game had taken on the players, he was alone save for a marked Johnson. For all the world he had to chip, to mere mortals in such spaces such as those of us on the touchlines, Naylor thought otherwise and how right he was. He turned on the afterburners to round the last defender in style to score a glorious individual try, one of the great tries this fixture has seen, a match winner, and a try that will be remembered for years to come in the tales of this great fixture.
From there his side closed out what can only be described as an outstanding 20-10 victory. It was a performance of which they should be immensely proud. On the back foot for long periods in terms of the traditional metrics of possession and territory, they defended with a level of discipline, accuracy, and good decision-making that really defied the players’ age and the fact that this was a schools game. In attack they were utterly clinical, one chance one try in the first half, and then in the second two beautifully crafted tries in two completely different ways.
Wellington will be hurting, losing their unbeaten record, yet they too should reflect with pride. The players simply could not have given more. Both sets were visibly exhausted at the death and each with reflect in the days to come that they have not faced anything like that level of performance anywhere else this season.
Both sets of players have already inked themselves into the schools rugby history books with their achievements to date already, and both have opportunities to create further history. Wellington have the chance to become the first side ever to win the Champions Trophy twice, and in successive years, on Wednesday, and have already got the St Joseph’s Festival title.
In Sedbergh’s case this victory keeps them in the hunt for the Daily Mail Trophy and puts its destiny in their hands. It keeps their unbeaten season alive, and keeps the almost ridiculous dream, such would be the magnitude of the achievement, of a ‘treble-treble’ alive.
A word two on the two Heads of Rugby, Simon Mulholland at Sedbergh and Dan Richards at Wellington. Men whose understanding of what makes school rugby special is absolute, marrying the understanding of how much it means to each group with a clam and familial approach.
For now though, best to simply savour what was a stunning night of schoolboy rugby. Schools rugby of an intensity and standard rarely seen, a level that plenty of high level men’s sides would struggle even to get close to. Two extraordinary groups of players separated ultimately by a handful of moments of sheer class. It was a pleasure to witness.
Full Time: Sedbergh 20-10 Wellington College
15 Oliver Melville, 14 Cameron Melville, 13 Tom Lanni, 12 Diego Warnken Araya, 11 Fraser Jones, 10 Louie Johnson, 9 Murray Redpath, 1 Josh Johnson, 2 Lawrence Mason, 3 JJ Kouadio (c), 4 Max Jackson, 5 Carwyn Tuipulotu, 6 Iain Carmichael, 7 John Bailey (vc), 8 Rhys Tait.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Boyle, 17 Leo Johnson, 18 Ernest Freeman, 19 James Naylor, 20 Harry Shiel.
15 Hector Elrington, 14 Alex Teague, 13 Harry Cain, 12 Max Thomas, 11 Cassius Cleaves, 10 Monty Bradbury, 9 Finn Livingstone-Learmonth, 1 Alessandro Heaney, 2 Lucas Brooke, 3 Fin Baxter (c), 4 Arvind Sangha, 5 Nicholas Teague, 6 Ted Johnson, 7 Fin Lock, 8 Marcus Rhodes.
Replacements: 16 Ben Murrin, 17 Mack Keast, 18 Robbie Offord, 19 Finn Tawse.
Images via Ian Murrin