Whitgift sealed the U18 Schools Cup title with a 32-22 victory over back to back champions Warwick at Twickenham Stadium.
In the most pulsating and intense game of rugby Whitgift won their first U18 title since their back to back Elliot Daly inspired effort of 2010 and 2011, backing up their triumph in last year’s U15 final.
It ended Warwick’s dreams of joining the elite club of three-peat champions, a club that only includes Colston’s and Dulwich College, but it was oh so close, a game of rugby that sat on a knife edge almost throughout.
Whitgift deserved their win though, in Ed Dunford and Aristot Benz-Solomon they had the game’s two outstanding players, among many, and when the pressure came piling on from Warwick, Whitgift found the answers where they needed them.
It was truly a stunning game, an U18 Schools Cup final for the ages, one that will be remembered for years.
It even began dramatically. It took just 30 seconds for Whtigift to take the lead, captain Oliver Norris, who was here in the stands eight years ago when they last won, charging down a kick and gathering to score for the most incredible start you are likely to see.
Pin-point kicker Ben Fitzgerald banged over the extras for 7-0 and, honestly, you could have forgiven Warwick a collapse. So many would have, but not this group, not with this much Twickenham, not when chasing the history they were chasing, not with this much character.
There was a wobble though, a loose restart, stray passes, but they calmed, got themselves into the game and then found some pressure of their own. Whitgift gave away the yellow, and Warwick pounced. They worked their way into the 22 and then powered over through tighthead Alex Sabin. They had weathered the early storm and with Henry Mortimer’s conversion they had levelled the game at 7-7.
We had the game we all thought might happen, two brilliant sides playing with utter intensity, brutal intensity at times. Gallagher Premiership referee Matt Carley was in the middle, this would not have felt unfamiliar to him, and that was about as great a compliment as you could pay to these two fantastic sets of players.
A Fitzgerald penalty put Whitgift back in front at midway through the half, but Warwick responded in a massive way with half an hour gone when Will Pugh powered over after yet more relentless pressure on the Whitgift defence, for whom Benz-Solomon was doing some earth shattering work. Mortimer converted and for the first time in the game the back to back champions had the lead at 14-10, almost unimaginably after that start from Whitgift.
Points at crucial times in the game had been a theme throughout the day in the various finals, and Warwick were about to prove that again here. With three minutes left in the half Charlie Beckett scored one of the most delightful tries that you will see in Schools Cup finals.
It all came from the sheer brilliance of Ed Dunford, the Whitgift fly half who has playing like Finn Russell, all fizz and imagination. Spotting a half gap he scorched through on halfway before delivering the latest of late passes to send Beckett clear. There was nothing Warwick could do, the last man had to commit. A pass so late it became undefendable, and it send Whitgift in 15-14 up at the half time break.
Dunford then produced yet more magic early in the second half. Warwick were building up ahead of steam early on but when Whitgift turned the ball over deep in their own half, Dunford sniffed a chance.
Taking the ball to the line he looked like he would be tackled, it seemed unimaginable that he would not be, yet somehow he floated the miss-pass over for Fitzgerald who ate up the ground in front of him. In turn he drew the last man and released left wing Charlie Cadogan. Cadogan was just caught but, basketball style, he popped the ball over the covering defenders to his scrum half Tom Berger who bobbed and weaved his way to the line for the most brilliant try.
Fitzgerald converted from the touchline, and suddenly in a ten minute period either side of the half, Whitgift had gone from 14-10 down to 22-14 ahead.
Anyone thinking that Warwick would not bounce back though clearly had not been paying attention. They had had their chance to keel over, they were not about to take one now. Both of these sides were to good, too proud, to let that sort of thing happen to either of them.
Mortimer chipped over a penalty just to stem the Whitgift momentum, and it worked, Warwick started to regain some possession and territory, camping up in the Whitgift 22.
The pressure told, too many penalties eventually forced Carley to hand Whitgift a yellow. It took just two minutes for Warwick to seize upon that opportunity as hooker Max Rawson smashed his way over from close range after they had put on monstrous pressure.
Mortimer converted and they were back in it, 22-22. Suddenly all the pressure was on Whitgift and they were now being asked if they could respond, ever more so with a man down.
The answer could not have been more emphatic, indeed it was perhaps the single biggest summary of the sheer character in this exceptional Whitgift group. Forcing Warwick into the error from the restart they barged away at the defence before Benz-Solomon, within a minute of the Warwick try, had smashed his way over. It was startling stuff.
Dunford converted, with Fitzgerald in the bin, but the full back was on again shortly after to bang over a penalty with just two minutes left on the clock to stretch the lead out to 32-22, from where Whitgift could see out the game.
Both sides were simply outstanding, contributing to easily one of the best U18 Schools Cup finals in this tournament’s history. Warwick will be gutted, their dream of a hat-trick ended, but the sheer character they showed throughout the game after some major setbacks was a testament to each and every player. They will go home gutted, but they should be going home proud.
Whitgift though were just stunning at times, like Warwick they were tested throughout and had to show some deep moments of courage, but in amongst that there were some moments of utter genius and sublime skill.
Winning at U15 level last year and now U18 level this, they too are building something of a dynasty of their own, and now this group too join the legends of 2010 and 2011. A quite brilliant group of players, and a stunningly courageous, characterful, and unbelievably skilled performance.
Whitgift has a new band of heroes, and they oh so deserving of being placed on that same pedestal as those sides at the turn of the decade.
It was, quite simply, just a superb game of rugby, a wonderful Cup final, and two astonishing groups of players.
Full Time: Whitgift 32-22 Warwick
15 Ben Fitzgerald, 14 Ioan Parry, 13 Charlie Beckett, 12 Niall McGann, 11 Charlie Cadogan, 10 Ed Dunford, 9 Tom Berger, 1 Bertie Heaver, 2 Joe Vajner, 3 Aristot Benz-Solomon, 4 Max Greatwood, 5 Ross Sharpe, 6 Harry Dugmore, 7 Oliver Norris (c), 8 Harry Breeze.
Replacements: 16 Ben Donnelly, 17 Jimmy Willson-Rosell, 18 Joe Hubner, 19 Gabriel Seriki, 20 Harvey Cutmore, 21 Felix Gilbert, 22 Clem Li-Raphael.
15 Henry Miles, 14 Xander Eddy, 13 Harry Spencer, 12 Alex Green, 11 Tom Boorman, 10 Fin Smith, 9 Henry Mortimer, 1 Jozef Jones, 2 Max Rawson, 3 Alex Sabin, 4 Dan May, 5 Will Pugh, 6 Kai Nwangwa, 7 Oscar Roberts, 8 Will Kelley (c).
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rigby, 17 Conor Dunleavy, 18 Luke Robinson, 19 Jonathan Ip, 20 Ethan Evan Cook, 21 Jamie Mackinley, 22 Jack Aston.