By Josh Bartholomew
Sometimes, words can’t quite describe the drama on a sporting field. This was certainly one of those occasions. In the closing minutes alone of this Champions Trophy semi-final, the pendulum swung back-and-forth, back-and-forth – to Rugby, to Hampton, to Hampton, but the crucial blow was the final one, and it was Rugby’s, taking a 22-19 win with the last play.
Trailing by eight points with under ten minutes remaining, it looked as if Hampton’s brilliant, tenacious cup campaign would fizzle out at the home of the sport. But their run has been built upon guts and fight, and that’s exactly what Rugby found out, before the home team were themselves able to hit back with the clock dead.
Having travelled to the Midlands, detouring to the World Rugby Hall of Fame along the way, Hampton had the better of the opening exchanges. After a territorial kicking-battle, Hampton took the ball into the ruck, where Rugby were penalised. Fly-half Jamie Benson pointed to the sticks, but his penalty fell just wide.
But as both teams broke into their stride in the early stages, Rugby’s physicality shone through, powering their way into Hampton’s 22, before creating an overlap for winger Archie Cade to score in the corner and give his team an early 5-0 lead.
Hampton immediately attempted to strike back, winning a penalty and kicking into the Rugby 22m, but were unlucky to lose the ball after Rugby were awarded a scrum for accidental obstruction. Hampton’s misfortune was a theme that would continue throughout the game.
Both sides were competing in their first ever national semi-final, and with the stakes so high, the ensuing period of tension was to be expected as both sides got to grips with the occasion.
Such pressure often results in a more structured game-plan, a reliance on forward power, but Hampton’s brand of expansive, running rugby still shone through. And it was this which resulted in Hampton’s first try.
Captain Patrick Silcox opted to take a quick-line out inside his own 22, elegantly stepping past Rugby’s charging kick-chase before taking the ball into contact. But Hampton had built numbers with this unexpected play, and Tommy Nagle capitalised on them to break through, surging his way up to half-way. The backrower, playing in his first game since returning from injury, then found Jamie Benson with a spectacular offload. Benson calmly assessed the field, feigning right, before giving Archer Chilcott a free run to the line. Benson’s conversion gave Hampton a 5-7 lead.
Inevitably, the tension returned to the game, with both teams failing to take advantage of respective strong attacking positions. Hampton were now, though, playing with a one-man disadvantage after Lucas Mangham was sent to the sin-bin for an offence at the maul.
Rugby attempted to capitalise on this, but struggled to do so until mere moments before Mangham’s return. Counter-attacking from Hampton scrum-half Luke Greenall’s box-kick, Rugby’s outside centre scythed into the 22, before letting his forwards take over. With one fewer defender, Hampton’s try line was under extreme threat. But the plucky pride repelled onslaught after Rugby onslaught, until the pressure was too much and Rugby used their numerical advantage to score near the touchline.
Despite their excellent try, Hampton had been defending for the majority of the first-half, and at the interval a change was needed to counteract Rugby’s forward power, most notably supplied by Scotland U18 Ben Muncaster.
Hampton looked energised after half-time, breaking to the Rugby line with a wonderful Joe Sykes run, but the final, finishing touch was missing as the 1st XV built the phases, meaning the home team could clear.
With the clock ticking and darkness drawing in, the game was poised on a knife-edge. Hampton’s depth on the substitutes’ bench looked stronger, and Louis Goodwin, David Ellis and Joe Sykes all had a noticeable impact on the game.
But entering the last ten minutes, it was still Rugby with a five-point lead, and this was extended to eight as they stormed into the Hampton 22. The team from south-west London did well to avoid conceding what would’ve been a fatal try, but Rugby’s fly-half knocked over a drop-goal to give his team a solid advantage with only minutes remaining.
Hampton’s kick-off was inch-perfect, allowing backrower Alex Taylor to smash into the Rugby catcher, giving the Lions great attacking position just outside the 22. And Hampton somehow seemed to gain a further iota of energy, breaking rapidly on the outside through London Irish centre Jesper Hartikainen and Barry. The ball was lost in the process, but Lucas Mangham charged down Rugby’s clearance kick brilliantly, and Aidan Barry could simply flop on the ball and score. Benson’s conversion was unsuccessful, and with a draw resulting in a Rugby win (the Competition rules state that in the event of a tie, the side scoring first wins), Hampton knew that they needed another try.
With only three minutes on the clock, Hampton’s intensity was increased even further, forcing a Rugby knock-on inside their own half. Hampton won a penalty in the plays that followed, and kicked to the corner knowing that they were running out of opportunities.
The line-out was well-secured by Archer Chilcott, and Hampton used their driving maul to attract opposition defenders, before peeling off into space. In the muddy, dark conditions, Hampton relied on their forward-play to give them the crucial try. As drive after drive after drive was repelled, it appeared that Rugby’s resistance would be too much.
But no man in black-and-gold was giving up, and Hampton’s persistence paid off in the most rewarding of fashions as Alex Taylor burrowed over to score. Benson’s simple conversion went over to take the score-line to 15-19 and give Hampton the lead once more.
There were now only seconds remaining on the clock, but there was time for the kick-off. When Aidan Barry won it acrobatically and broke into the Rugby 22, it looked as if victory was secured. But Hampton were penalised for sealing off, and Rugby were given one final opportunity.
Winning a penalty on halfway, Rugby kicked to the 5m line, and built a driving maul. Hampton defended it effectively, but were adjudged to have done so illegally. Rugby were granted another go. And this time, they made the most of it, launching a powerful maul and scoring.
And there was sport’s ruthless juxtaposition, brutally exposed: Rugby in white – celebratory, victorious; Hampton in black – broken, disconsolate.