Warwick are into their fourth U18 Schools Cup final in a row, where they will face champions Whitgift for the second time in succession, after a dramatic late 32-23 victory over Northampton School for Boys.
Heading into the last few minutes the visitors were trailing 23-20 to NSB but tries from Elliot Tanner and then, in the last play of the game, captain William Banfield, saw Warwick turn the game around at the death sparking huge celebration from the men in blue and white and utter heartbreak for the hosts, who were aiming to join their U15 side at Twickenham on finals day on Thursday 19th March.
It was a game that was utterly in the balance right from the start when Northampton School for Boys scored after just two minutes as full back Jed Jenkins picked up a loose ball following a stunning break from inside centre Josh Bull, who was to prove an absolute menace for Warwick all game.
Just a couple of minutes later though, Warwick were in front. Initially held up after a huge maul, they broke right from the scrum and a delicious pass of his left hand from England U18 fly half Fin Smith, who was utterly brilliant all game, found Ethan Evan Cook in acres of space. With Smith converting, Warwick now led 7-5.
A quarter of an hour in though another big bust from Bull saw NSB earn a penalty, which Jenkins gladly knocked over to retake the lead 8-7, only for Smith for reply for Warwick after good work on the floor from Harry Spencer.
Smith then added another that really felt as though it changed the tone of the game, from almost the half way line he sent it flying over from a 13-8 lead, a real signal to the home side that they simply could not afford to give away penalties or he would pounce.
Smith and Spencer were then at the heart of one of the key moments of the game as half time approached. NSB had a lineout of halfway but Warwick poached it and quickly moved the ball out to Spencer’s outside centre channel. The elusive running burst through to the NSB 22 where he released Smith, who quickly found a lovely offload for his half back partner Jack Aston to send him under the posts and Warwick into half time 20-11 to the good with his conversion.
A nine point lead was tough on the hosts though, for long periods they had been excellent and had forced Warwick into a huge amount of defensive work, however the three time champions had found a way in key moments for some clinical play, something that would prove a theme moving into the second half.
Not so early on though, when it was Northampton School for Boys who, as in the first half, pounced early. This time through left wing Joel Grayson, whose brother Ethan was beginning to pull some real strings at fly half, who waltzed over in the corner after a few minutes of heavy pressure in the away 22.
That narrowed the gap, and a penalty miss would have narrowed it even further, however that was quickly out of mind as Northampton School for Boys scored their third try of the game to regain the lead that they had last held midway through the first half.
It came after more pressure as they trapped Warwick in their own 22 and then went to the corner with the penalty that was eventually coughed up. Constructing the maul perfectly, they blasted over and blindside Tom Ball dotted the ball down, Jenkins converting for a 23-20 lead.
Perhaps that maul and the preceding penalty miss was still on the mind a few minutes later in what proved a key moment in the game. The hosts had a penalty in front of the posts with a little over ten minutes left to play. Rather than take it though, they went to the corner again, going for the jugular.
It was at this point that Warwick made the first of the key series of plays that was to win them the match, forcing the error at the lineout to win the scrum and escape what was potentially a match-losing situation without conceding a score.
Still they needed to score themselves though and, guided by Smith, they worked the field position to give themselves a chance. This time it was they that were turning down points in front of the posts, but when they went to the corner with less than ten left on the clock, they came up with the goods.
Smith went to the corner and the pack set up the maul in the left hand corner. Crabbing infield they suddenly broke left and fed replacement wing Elliot Tanner, who finished smartly in the corner. From the possibility of a potentially unassailable deficit, the visitors suddenly led 25-23 with barely any time left on the clock.
Still there was plenty to be done though, as we saw with Whitgift’s dramatic late penalty yesterday for their 24-23 defeat of Sherborne, the game is not over until it is over. Warwick were, like Sherborne yesterday, in possession though and all they had to do was play smart to see it out. A loose pass to Smith necessitated a decision though, and he took it, hammering the ball downfield. Without doubt it was a kick aimed to find space and touch but the bounce of a rugby ball is an unpredictable thing and as it skipped towards touch it suddenly sat up.
NSB were scrambling to cover but as it sat up it bounced perfectly into the hands of the onrushing Warwick win, James Treasure. Instinctively as he caught it he chipped ahead and with another tricky bounce it sat perfectly into the hands of his supporting captain, number 8 William Banfield.
It was a cruel cruel way for the game to end for Northampton School for Boys, but it was a finish of pure joy and elation for Warwick as Banfield lay prone with the ball over the line. Smith converted to leave the final score at 32-23, a harsher looking score on the hosts than they deserved from a game that had been incredibly tight right the way through.
Ultimately though it came down to those three key plays from Warwick, defending the maul on their own line, capitalizing on their own maul on Northampton School for Boys’, and then pouncing on that booming Smith kick at the death to finish the tie off.
Northampton School for Boys will be heartbroken, they had had a fantastic run and were backed by over 1,500 people on Sunday afternoon. They gave everything and in reality could have won the game on another day, such are the fine margins of sport at this level.
In the end though that experience in these big knockout games of rugby was the key for Warwick, making key plays in key moments to secure a stunning 4th final in a row.
Their dominance of this tournament at both U18 and U15 level in this few years is simply astonishing, one of the great feats in schools rugby history. Thursday 19th March at Twickenham Stadium will be a spectacular occasion, made all the more mouth-watering for being a repeat of last year.
It is going to be very, very, special.
Full Time: Northampton School for Boys 23-32 Warwick
Northampton School for Boys
15 Jed Jenkins, 14 Mauro Almada, 13 Arjun Pooji, 12 Josh Bull, 11 Joel Grayson, 10 Ethan Grayson, 9 Charlie Johnson, 1 Luke Bond, 2 Callum Burns (c), 3 Luke Fahey, 4 Emeka Atuanya, 5 Tom Heslop, 6 Tom Ball, 7 Lochlan Brown, 8 Ethan Wright.
Replacements: 16 Joe Lovell, 17 George Huson, 18 Declan Kneeshaw, 19 George Patten.
15 William Mobberley, 14 James Treasure, 13 Harry Spencer, 12 Thomas Boorman, 11 Ethan Evan Cook, 10 Fin Smith, 9 Jack Aston, 1 Matthew Rigby, 2 Cameron Dunn, 3 Tom Hales, 4 Maximillian Stanton, 5 William Pugh, 6 Adam Lane, 7 Will Callan, 8 William Banfield (c).
Replacements: 16 Archie McCusker, 17 Joshua Simango, 18 Alesandro Fakatou, 19 Max Plumb, 20 Elliot Tanner.
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