By Harry McLusky and Sam Ho
The pinnacle of any school’s rugby season, St Joseph’s Festival brings together 16 1st XVs from across the country in an epic two-day showdown between some of the best teams in the UK. Starting with the group stages on Saturday 21 October, teams would be filtered into four different knockout competitions on the following Sunday, depending on their group stage performance.
Hampton arguably came into the tournament as underdogs, following a mixed start to the 2023/24 season plagued with countless injuries to key players. Captain and England U18s centre Finlay Wiseman was one of those missing the tournament, along with vice-captains Max Cardosi and Frank Hall; Ben Conaghan and Nick Lynagh to name a few.
Nonetheless, a sense of determination seemed to be shared among the squad, despite the wet conditions on a cold Saturday morning up in Ipswich.
This convivction was immediately put to the test with a tough opening game against QEGS Wakefield. Nevertheless, Hampton prevailed comfortably, passing their early challenge of grit and resolve with flying colours. Fly-half Tim Wright chipped in with two penalties, including an excellent kick from over 40 metres. His kicking ability proved pivotal throughout the tournament, helping to put Hampton in threatening positions and convert crucial points when called upon. His penalties were built upon by Will Wallace, also of the Lower Sixth, who bundled the ball over the line just before the final whistle to confirm an encouraging opening 3-11 win.
Welsh side Whitchurch High were up next for Hampton, a team whose particular threat came from their forward pack. This attacking danger perhaps came as a surprise to Hampton, who were quickly overpowered in the maul, leading to a converted try and an early 0-7 deficit within three minutes. However, the team seemed unfazed, drawing level almost immediately through a Harry Pritchard try, which was aptly converted by Tim Wright. With momentum now against them, Whitchurch seemed to struggle to cope with a relentless wave of Hampton pressure approaching the half-way stage, initiated by a brilliant interception and clearance from Hal Leman. In fact, Leman was the man who gave Hampton the half-time lead they thoroughly deserved, finishing what he started by crashing the ball over the line in the corner to give his team a five-point cushion heading into the break.
Whitchurch were certainly not to be underestimated though, immediately biting back after half time. Two slightly scrappy tries (albeit largely caused by unnecessary unforced errors) gave them a 19-12 advantage with seven minutes remaining for Hampton to salvage something from this game. Toby Smith was the man of the moment in the 21st minute. With expert awareness, he capitalised on a loose pass near the half-way line and made use of his lightning pace to outrun the Whitchurch defence and give Hampton a shot at equalising from the conversion. Yet again, Hal Leman was the most composed player on the pitch, channeling his inner George Ford and levelling up the score at 19-19 at the full-time whistle.
A win and a draw set up a thrilling group stage finale against fierce local rivals, Trinity School. Often regarded as one of the best rugby schools in the country, and already qualified for Sunday’s trophy competition, Trinity were on-paper favourites in this pivotal game.
Nonetheless, Hampton started out strongest, with great work from Aran Taheri Murphy securing a penalty which was, almost inevitably, converted by Tim Wright. The first half was a slightly disjointed affair, with Hampton’s defence holding strong against persistent Trinity waves of attack to keep the score in the former’s favour going into the half-time team talks.
Seemingly aggravated by Hampton’s resolve, Trinity looked to regain momentum straight from the off, kicking deep and forcing a line-out within 20 metres of the tryline. The opposition’s individual class also shone through with their No.2, a Harlequins Academy hooker, coolly winning an aerial ball and darting down the left wing, before cutting inside and confidently diving over the line, giving them a 7-3 lead, following the conversion. With seven minutes to go, results elsewhere currently meant Hampton would be meeting an abrupt end to their hopes of St Joseph’s glory. A win was necessary for trophy qualification and a chance of silverware. With 23 minutes on the clock, the momentum suddenly shifted back in Hampton’s favour. Eddie Nieland regained the ball and released it to Sam Ho, who made valuable ground with a driving forward run. Joe Cornell was to be Hampton’s hero here, receiving the ball and steamrolling it over the line, delivering the final score of the game and giving Hampton a narrow 7-8 victory, confirming their place in the trophy competition on the following day.
Three more games were to follow on the Sunday for Hampton, with their sights firmly set on winning the trophy at the end of it. Unfortunately, the tournament’s second day did not bear as much fruit as the opening Saturday, and despite their best efforts, Hampton were unable to secure silverware.
A 10-0 loss to RGS High Wycombe in the quarter-final led to Hampton being matched against the hosts, St Joseph’s College, in the semi-final of the plate competition. Masses of home supporters gathered around Pitch 1 to watch the game, however Hampton were clearly unfazed, lining up in an impressive arrow formation (reminiscent of England’s vs New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup Semi-Final) to welcome the crowd favourites onto the field.
Unfortunately, it was not to be for Hampton. Two tries either side of half time secured a 14-0 win for the hosts, despite some exciting flashes of quality from James Abrahart on the wing and Aran Taheri Murphy in the line-outs.
Nevertheless, all was not lost with one game remaining. Having overcome them in the group stage the day before, Hampton were yet again paired up with Trinity School in a direct battle for 7th place. Trinity would undeniably be out for vindication after Joe Cornell’s try gave Hampton a late win just 24 hours ago, but Hampton were also determined to leave on a high.
However, Trinity drew first blood in this highly-contested rematch, being allowed too much space down their right flank, handing them a 5-0 lead within a minute. Despite this early setback, Hampton made quick work of drawing back level, with a deep kick-off bouncing nicely for Joe Cornell to easily score his second try of the tournament, with both being against Trinity. Wright’s conversion from close range gave Hampton a 7-5 lead just two minutes after trailing.
This lead was further built upon just before half time, with James Abrahart continuing to show his flair. His powerful carry down the left flank ended in him bulldozing through the last man to put Hampton in a comfortable position heading into the break, leading 12-5.
Hampton started the second half as they’d finished the first, with Wright’s penalty extending their lead to 10 points (15-5). Despite this, Trinity’s dominant control of possession proved too much for the Hampton defence, leading to a converted try in the 15th minute, putting them back into the game. In fact, it was Trinity who took the lead soon after, with a clever offload allowing them to sneak another try in the far corner, which was then slotted through the posts to put them 19-15 up with three minutes left on the clock.
Nonetheless, as they’d shown throughout the weekend, Hampton could never be considered down and out. Collective intense pressure from the restart forced a line-out, which was well won by the towering Adam Gwynne. Working together as a unit, the team drove forward in the maul, with Will Wallace once again proving his worth in the team, by finishing off the try – putting Hampton in the lead with seconds remaining.
The referee’s whistle soon brought an end to a fantastic spectacle of rugby, with Hampton finishing on a high with a 19-18 victory against Trinity.
A special mention must go to Tom Williams, who stood in for the absent Finlay Wiseman, leading the team by example and exemplifying Hampton’s tenacity and guile with aplomb.
Watching from the sidelines, Wiseman said that he felt the team “took [the tournament] with pride, embraced the occasion and really enjoyed it”, with part-time commentator and vice-captain Frank Hall praising the festival as a “great experience, getting to play to teams that you might not get to play otherwise”.
Overall, given their adverse injury circumstances, St Joseph’s Festival was a success for the Hampton 1st XV, with some fantastic results giving them motivation to continue their form through the rest of the season.