Over the next term, HSC will be attempting to discover the identity of Hampton’s Greatest Sporting Moment, with your help. This article recounts the First XV’s trip to the Daily Mail RBS Vase final in 2009. This will compete against three other moments in Group Five. Vote in our Twitter poll on Friday to decide your favourite moments – the winner will progress to the quarter-final stage!
In the late 2000s, Hampton’s rugby programme was undergoing something of a revolution. For years considered a school of football and rowing, former Director of Rugby Zoran Higgins’ arrival in 2005 marked a change in fortunes for Hampton’s rugby programme. “I’ve made it my job to create a rugby culture” he said in 2009. “I’ve worked my cotton socks off and so have the boys.’
“Rugby seems like the third sport in the school.’ Higgins admitted at the time. “We have had rowing internationals and our football team are the defending Independent Schools FA champions.”
But after three ISFA finals in six seasons in the round-ball game, 2008/09 was the season where Hampton truly began to compete on the rugby field. Armed with powerful forwards, including eventual London Welsh captain Morgan Browne and Scottish Exile Fraser Wem, and skilful backs, Higgins’ team launched an assault on the Daily Mail RBS U18 Vase.
After a disappointing 10-19 loss to Farnborough Sixth Form College in Round Two of the Daily Mail Cup, Hampton were forced into the second-tier competition: the Daily Mail RBS Vase.
Far from despondent after this early-season frustration, Hampton launched an assault on the Vase, beating Isleworth & Syon School 57-0 in their first game. After five more adept victories – most notably against Reed’s School and Latymer Upper School – Hampton reached the semi-final, where they would play against King Edward VI School at Broadstreet RFC, Coventry.
Initially, it didn’t quite go to plan. Hampton fell behind twice in the opening minutes to two King Edward tries. But Hampton’s superior attacking verve and set-piece prowess paid dividends over the course of the match, with Zafar Ansari impressing from fly-half with his dazzling skill. Hampton eventually ran out 52-19 winners – a record score for a Vase semi-final – and booked their place at Twickenham for the final.
At HQ they would come up against an equally impressive team: John Cleveland School, who could boast the indomitable Manu Tuilagi in the centres. Initially, Tuilagi was unable to break past the Hampton onslaught, and tries from Brooke Driver and Josef Wasinski gave Higgins’ team a 12-6 lead at the interval.
But Tuilagi could not be subdued for long, and despite Hampton’s rapturous support, he led John Cleveland to two quickfire tries after the break, scoring the second himself to give his team a 12-20 advantage.
Hampton were not done yet, though, and reduced the deficit to five points with only minutes remaining. But John Cleveland held strong with powerful defense, and eventually won 15-23.
Although Hampton were eventually unsuccessful, the school’s success in the forthcoming years (they have reached the Last 16 stage of the national tournament in all but one season since) proves that the exploits of the 2008-09 First XV were truly transcendental for the sport at the school.
In a time when football and rowing dominated the sporting landscape at Hanworth Road, Higgins and his team changed the athletic DNA of the school with their cup campaign in 2009.
In short – playing at Twickenham was about more than just one match: it was about a culture change, an identity change; it’s paved the way for Hamptonians to dominate the rugby circuit in every season since. Few seasons can have had so much of an impact.