By Josh Bartholomew
For the 1st XV, today’s Champions Trophy semi-final at Rugby School represents more than just the opportunity to play at the home of the sport – it’s the chance to do what no Hampton rugby team has ever done before and reach a national final.
Reaching a semi-final isn’t entirely unusual for Hampton teams, though. In fact, two seasons ago, the current Lower Sixth became the first Hampton side to reach the last four of a national competition – as U15s. They came up against a fiercely powerful Whitgift team at Allianz Park, losing 21-10 to two late tries, despite showing superior tactics and skill.
At the time, Mr Knibbs noted in assembly that the then U15s would be back before long to compete for the biggest title in schoolboy rugby – the Champions Trophy. He was right. The skilful U15s of 2017/18 have added power and ruthlessness to their game to make up the core of the 1st XV this season.
Hampton have comfortably navigated their way through the early rounds of the competition: beating Tonbridge 24-15, travelling to Berkhamsted and returning with a 38-0 victory, before welcoming Uppingham to the Lions’ den and winning 27-7.
The Champions Trophy is a unique competition for school sport: it involves far fewer rounds than your traditional cup, but the quality of all the teams who enter is extremely high. In beating Tonbridge, Berkhamsted and Uppingham so convincingly, this Hampton team have proven that they’re a side truly amongst the very elite in the country.
They’re joined in the semi-finals by three others who make up the highest echelon of English schoolboy rugby: Wellington College, Rugby School and Epsom College.
Rugby are an extremely competitive outfit and will pose a stiff challenge for Hampton. They are coached by Mike Bayly, who coached the Blue Bulls in Super Rugby in the 2000s. But on the field, their forward pack is immense. The back row alone has two international captains: England Number 8 Emika Ilione and Scotland flanker Ben Muncaster; in the front-row, Leicester Tigers prop Rob Hardwick will add physicality to the pack.
But Hampton have some equally potent weapons of their own. In the backline, Harlequins academy fly-half Jamie Benson will steer the ship, and Tim Lamming and Jesper Hartikainen will both line-up alongside him as London Irish players. The 1stXV have also been dealt a welcome boost in the return from injury of powerful back-rower Tommy Nagle, who is joined in the forwards by academy players Rupert Reddish and Iestyn Humphrey, though captain Theo Johnson being kept on the side-lines with a torn hamstring is a blow.
Hampton’s forwards are quite capable of competing with Rugby’s, much as they did against Brighton College and Dulwich College at St. Jo’s. Whether they can gain an advantage is, though, a different question.
But Hampton’s strengths are not in their forward play anyway – their defence is strong, their attacking back play fast, their skills high-quality. The team who can best use the platform set up by their forwards will likely hold the upper-hand in this tie.
A place in the final at Allianz Park in December will be just reward for the victors, and the result of this semi-final game marks the difference between a very good cup campaign and a great one for this plucky, skilful Hampton side.