As days in the life of a seventeen-year-old go, signing professional terms for next season with Sale Sharks in the morning before kicking the match winning touchline conversion for your school in the evening has got to be up there.
A dream for some, that was the reality for Sedbergh skipper Tom Curtis on Wednesday evening as his last minute conversion from the left hand side handed Sedbergh a 17-15 victory over Wellington College to win arguably the biggest school game of the year so far.
With just a couple of minutes left on the clock Sedbergh trailed 15-7 to a Wellington side that were playing with unbelievable passion and determination. Having refused to crack throughout the second half, as time ticked away it seemed as though they might do it. However a Curtis penalty narrowed it to 15-10 and when the referee said there was time enough to restart, the game was on.
From the kick off Sedbergh charged upfield and a short few phases later they were able to release replacement Harry Sheil down the left wing. He showed brilliant pace and finishing prowess to go over for a wonderful score in the left hand corner to level the scores, leaving Curtis with the agonising touchline conversion.
Agonising for those watching of a Sedbergh, or indeed a Wellington, persuasion. For Curtis, apparently just routine for the moment his boot connected he was away celebrating. A glance towards the posts was not needed. When you know, you know.
It was elation for Sedbergh and heartbreak for Wellington. With a driving wind at their backs in the first half they had performed exactly as one should in those conditions. A penalty from Will Sinfield early on was then followed by a try from short range from England prop Fin Baxter for an 8-0 lead.
Wellington were playing smart, getting the ball deep into Sedbergh territory and then flooding 14 men into the defensive line, daring Sedbergh to kick into the howling wind. To their credit, Sedbergh did not bite. Only once all half did they try to kick out and even then only because the wall that Wellington had built between the Sedbergh 22 and 10 metre lines was proving almost impenetrable, Wellington skipper and openside Fin Rossiter was at the heart of it – an utter inspiration on the night.
Even when Sedbergh did foray into Wellington territory, the defence held stoically firm. Until half an hour in when a brilliant Sedbergh maul saw them absolutely steamroll over the line through hooker Lawrence Mason. With Curtis converting and half time approaching, an 8-7 deficit playing into that wind felt as though Sedbergh were coming away with the virtual lead if not the actual lead.
However Wellington had other ideas. Foreshadowing the drama that was to come later on, Wellington crashed over for their second try to the game in the dying seconds of the half as Rossiter went over from close range for a deserved score in the left hand corner.
From almost the same place that Curtis would later perform his heroics, his opposite number Will Sinfield landed an equally good conversion on the stroke of half time to give Wellington a 15-7 lead heading into half time.
As the second half started the touchline assumption was that with the wind now behind them, Sedbergh would have the upper hand – the question was, had Wellington taken advantage sufficiently in the first half to negate that. The answer, it would emerge, was nail-bitingly close.
Time ticked away, five minutes with no score, ten, twenty, thirty. Twice Wellington had prevented what felt like certain tries, hauling one man down just inches from the line before a stunning chase back on Sedbergh winger Theo Manihera, who had gobbled up a loose kick and had nothing but green grass between him and the line. It felt like sheer guts that led Wellington to haul him down on the 22.
You could see Wellington believing, the intensity of defence was at levels rarely seen at school level. The trouble for them was, defence was starting to become the overriding part of the game, Sedbergh were dominating both possession and territory. Yet still, the clock went past half an hour in the second half, past 31 minutes. For all that Sedbergh had the ball and the field position, they did not have the clock.
What they did have was belief and absolutely ice-cool thinking. On 32 minutes their pressure was rewarded with a penalty. Curtis had no hesitation, bang it over and go again. Smart and calculated. 15-10. 2 minutes 30 to play.
Wellington kicked off, George Barber made a half break on the return to get up to half way on the right hand side. Sedbergh worked it forward through the phases it was deliberate, but not over careful – this Wellington wall was too good to make ground without the ball carrier attacking the pass.
Then the moment came, the ball went left and replacement Harry Sheil sniffed the chance and went, racing away and finishing brilliantly for the what was actually a brilliant try in the left hand corner. As Sedbergh went wild a Wellington hands rushed to the heads emotions all around the ground were high.
Except for one young man. It had been a brilliant comeback in these dying moments from Sedbergh, but there was still a game to be won. With adrenalin surely surging, Tom Curtis looked like it was just another day in the park as he stroked home the touchline conversion for a 17-15 lead.
There was still time enough for one more Sedbergh attack, but as it broke down and the ref blew his final whistle there was a bit of relief among the Sedbergh euphoria and the Wellington heartbreak. Another try would have given this scoreline a look that simply would not have reflected the agonising and brilliant intensity and drama of the game.
It was a dramatic and thrilling ending, but more than that it was a game that showcased the very best of school rugby and exactly what schools rugby is all about. It is about intensity, about passion, about drama, about giving everything alongside your mates. It is about it feeling special, and this was so very very special.
For Sedbergh it continues their unbeaten season, which also now includes back to back Daily Mail Trophy titles – before this game even kicked off their lead was uncatchable. For Wellington it was a gut wrenching defeat, but also demonstrated just how good they are. Small wonder that they too could collect a Trophy in the next week if they beat Epsom College in the Champions Trophy final on Wednesday.
Two brilliant teams, one incredible game, and, as a watching Will Greenwood once famously said to Elton Flatley, one set of ‘balls as big as a house’.
Full Time: Sedbergh 17-15 Wellington College
15 Alex Brundage, 14 George Barber, 13 William Panday, 12 Tom Curtis (c), 11 Theo Manihera, 10 Will Haydon-Wood, 9 Michele Brighetti, 1 Benjamin Patchett, 2 Lawrence Mason, 3 JJ Kouadio, 4 Carwyn Tuipulotu, 5 Sam Higginson, 6 Iain Carmichael, 7 John Bailey, 8 Rhys Tait.
Replacements: 16 Declan O’Neill, 17 Hugh Hollins, 18 Harry Renwick, 19 Oliver Melville, 20 Michael Cooke, 21 Harry Sheil.
15 Max Thomas, 14 Harry Williams, 13 Ross Hanekom, 12 Will Sinfield, 11 Harry Cain, 10 Monty Bradbury, 9 Jamie Miller, 1 Marcus Rhodes, 2 Ben Raho, 3 Fin Baxter, 4 Alber Dwan, 5 Cassius Forshaw, 6 Lucas Brooke, 7 Fin Rossiter (c), 8 Tobias Scalabrini.
Replacements: 16 Ben Murrin, 17 Alessandro Heaney, 18 Olly Cash, 19 Ted Johnson, 20 Finn Livinstone-Learmouth, 21 Hector Elrington, 22 Cassius Cleaves.