Sedbergh School fell behind to a long-range penalty with five minutes to go but came back with a dramatic try on the final play to clinch a thrilling 26-23 victory over Blackrock College.
The appearance of this fixture on the fixture list during the summer whetted the appetite for something special from the rare match-up between two of the top two sides in the British Isles. The quality of play throughout and the tension of the closing minutes if anything exceeded those expectations. The Dublin based school had visited England two years ago to play Wellington College and that game ended in a 19-19 draw.
Sedbergh were without England U18 Development squad member Ollie Melville, but his twin brother Cameron took the field in a side that was as ever packed with talent. Blackrock included half a dozen members of the Leinster Interprovincial squad. The iconic setting of the Buskholme pitches had been bathed in sunshine all morning and, although the skies darkened just before kick-off, there was on;y a short rain shower and the still conditions could not have been better.
This was a real festival of rugby, with Sedbergh and Blackrock also playing a 2nd XV fixture on the adjoining pitch. In a game of a quality that would be on a par with many schools’ 1st XV sides, the Leinster side established a seemingly insurmountable 21-0 lead but the home side almost produced an amazing comeback with three tries in the last quarter but fell just short at 21-19. Sedbergh U16s were hosting a Scottish representative side on the Powell pitch and maintained their impressive record for the term with a 15-10 victory.
On the Buskholme main pitch, the home side kicked off and established good field position when Blackrock were penalised on halfway. Although possession was won from the ensuing lineout and the ball moved through the hands to midfield, Blackrock got numbers to the breakdown and forced a penalty. The Leinster side showed that their won handling skills, getting the ball wide to wing John Francis Campbell who broke to the 22, where play was taken on by the forwards and a strong carry by hooker Scott Barron saw him break through tackles and crash over near the posts, fly-half Tom Gavignan adding the conversion.
Both sides looked to gain field position with their kicking game and although the visitors initially gained the upper hand, after captain Mark Morrissey had made some hard yards on the right, Sedbergh turnover ball gave them the chance to create an overlap. An initial break from his own 22 by hooker Lawrence Mason saw him link with No 8 Rhys Tait and Melville, and the Sedbergh No 2 was on hand to take an offload and outpace the defence to score under the posts, fly-half Louie Johnson converting to level the scores.
Blackrock continued to make effective use of the inside ball and looked the more likely to score, but conceded a penalty which gave Sedbergh an attacking lineout on the left, With possession won, quick ball enabled the home side to take play deep into the 22, but the final pass went astray and Sedbergh were penalised at the ensuing scrum. A further penalty gave the visitors the opportunity to set up an attacking lineout on the right and although the maul was well defended the ball was moved through the hands to the left, where Sedbergh were penalised. With advantage played, Gavignan looked to make use of the free ball with a cross-kick to the right corner which Barron athletically tapped back for wing Paddy McGowan but Sedbergh were able to stop the try, so it was back for the penalty from which Gavignan took the three points from the tee.
Following the restart, Blackrock were penalised at the scrum and Sedbergh elected to run that. Wing Harry Sheil stepped his way past several would-be tacklers on the right before a couple of long passes saw Mason look to create an overlap for Melville on the left. The cover defence keeping the wing out, but advantage was being played so we went back to the right for the penalty. After some discussion, Sedbergh again took the tap and Blackrock seemed to be caught unawares as Tait dived over close to the posts, Johnson converting to put the home side in the lead for the first time.
It seemed that Sedbergh would maintain their advantage going into the interval, as the restart went into the in-goal area. From the resulting 22 drop-out, taken short by centre Diego Warnken, possession was retained by the home side but a forward pass saw Blackrock awarded a scrum. With the set-piece ball won, the ball was moved quickly to centre Sam Small who found an excellent line to carve through the defence and score under the posts, Gavignan converting.
Half-time Sedbergh School 14-17 Blackrock College
Blackrock made a tactical change after the interval, with changes at half back: the arrival of Matthew Cullen and Michael Moloney as replacements off the bench brought a slight change to the pattern of play. While the emphasis remained on retaining possession in good field position, the Irish side looked to spread the ball to the wings as a variation on the pick and go tactic. The next ten minutes saw Sedbergh forced to defend inside their half and struggle for possession and when they were penalised on their 22 Moloney, taking over the kicking duties secured the three points from the tee.
The physicality of the game was starting to take a toll as Blackrock continued to go to the bench, and Sedbergh’s problems continued as the restart did not go 10m. Although Sedbergh briefly regained possession and broke out of their half when Blackrock were penalised, a side entry at the ruck saw them penalised. However, the throw to the ensuing lineout was not straight and Sedbergh used the resulting possession in dramatic fashion, quick hands putting Fraser Jones into space on the right and the full-back showed tremendous pace to beat the defence and score on the right. With Johnson adding the conversion, the home side was back in front.
The momentum was now with Sedbergh: with James Naylor coming off the bench at scrum-half they picked up the pace and when Jones ran back a kick into the Blackrock 22 on the right there was the chance to stretch the lead, but they could not exploit a potential overlap. A series of injury stoppages, with the flow of replacements including a few from the 2nd XV, upset the flow of play but the atmosphere continued to build with the players from the game on the adjoining pitch adding their vociferous support.
Blackrock had been superb at the breakdown throughout and forced another penalty, giving them an attacking lineout on halfway, but were themselves penalised allowing Sedbergh to relieve the pressure. Sedbergh had a glimpse of a possible overlap on the left but Melville was forced into touch. Blackrock got their driving maul going from the lineout but were forced to box kick when that was eventually stopped. The kick was run back by Sedbergh but more excellent work at the breakdown by Blackrock forced a penalty. With the clock running down toward five minutes the decision was made to go for the posts from the 10m line on the right. Moloney took time to prepare for the kick from the tee, and it was beautifully struck, just clearing the crossbar.
With time running out, Blackrock secured the restart and looked to retain possession, driving through the forwards. After several phases on halfway, Sedbergh were awarded a scrum: this looked like their final chance to regain the lead on what would probably be the final play. With possession won from the set-piece, after initial driving through the forwards the ball was switched through the hands to the right and centre Diego Warnken was put into space. He turned on the afterburners and beat a couple of would-be tacklers before diving over on the right to the joy of his teammates.
This was a school game of the highest order which frankly neither side deserved to lose. Blackrock were in charge for several periods of play but in the final analysis Sedbergh’s ability to put their outstanding runners into space was decisive.
Full-time: Sedbergh School 26-23 Blackrock College
By Peter Crawshaw
Sedbergh School: Josh Johnson, Lawrence Mason, JJ Kouadio (Captain), Max Jackson, Carwyn Tuipulotu, Iain Carmichael, John Bailey (Vice-Captain), Rhys Tait, Murray Redpath, Louie Johnson, Cameron Melville, Diego Warnken, Tom Lanni, Harry Sheil, Fraser Jones
Replacements: Bradley Boyd, Ernest Freeman, Thomas Winkler, James Naylor
Blackrock College: Hugo O’Malley (Vice-Captain), Scott Barron, Rory McGuire, Mark Morrissey (Captain), Sean Gilmore, Alex Simpson, Liam Molony, David Walsh, Thomas Quinn, Tom Gavigan,
John Francis Campbell, Ben Brownlee, Sam Small, Paddy McGowan, Jeff Kenny (Vice-Captain)
Replacements: Charlie O’Carroll, Matthew Cullen, Michael Moloney, Jamie Yarr, Michael Lowey, Paddy McCarthy