Monday 23 October 2023

St Joseph’s College 37th National Schools Rugby Festival 2023

Kirkham Grammar School claimed a maiden St Joseph’s Festival title in the most dramatic of fashions as a clutch Ollie Davies drop goal earned victory for his side in the final, 8-7 against RGS High Wycombe.

It was almost the perfect ending to yet another incredible weekend in this pocket of Suffolk that has become the key post in the schools’ rugby season for the sheer magic and quality that it manages to produce each and every year.

From Trophy to Shield, via Plate and Bowl, the thousands that had flocked to St Joseph’s College witnessed something special this weekend.

In Kirkham Grammar School, they witnessed a side that had given everything in pursuit of this title. They had come close before, a final in their debut season in 2019 and competitive runs in 2021 and 2022. That young side of 2022 won the Sedbergh 10s in March as they matured, and now as a more U6th-based side, they added this St Joseph’s Festival title, and likely think ahead now to a charge at the Continental Tyres Schools Cup, a tournament they have also come close to winning but not quite got over the line in yet.

In Ollie Davies, they had a fitting Player of the Tournament. The conversation around that award had centred very early in the weekend around himself and Millfield’s Steffan Emanuel, such had been the sheer quality on display every time the two had met – Emanuel scoring a beautiful try when the two sides met in an epic semi-final that went down to a penalty shoot-out.

Davies’ heroics got him the nod and he now joins a pantheon of greats immortalised on the St Joseph’s Festival honours list, Marcus Smith and Andy Goode being other notable fly halves to have won that award.

He would be the first to acknowledge that this victory was all about the team though, they had been the talk of the touchlines from Day 1, but in this run, they had to dig deep. Holding on in the semi-final against an epic Millfield performance as they went to Millfield – which means that Millfield still hasn’t lost at the Festival since before Covid – before RGS High Wycombe almost spoiled the Kirkham party in the final as they had Brighton College’s in the semi-final.

RGS High Wycombe’s performances are perhaps an equal achievement to Kirkham’s in winning the Festival. The Buckinghamshire side arrived unbeaten but thrust into the most competitive pool in the competition alongside Kirkham, plus the two Bowl finalists Wellington College and Cheltenham College, the theory was that maybe they had been dealt a tough hand.

How wrong those sentiments were. RGS beat Wellington and Cheltenham to progress to the Trophy and then beat Hampton in their quarter-final, before beating one of the three standout sides of the weekend, Brighton College (Kirkham and Millfield being the others). In the final it looked like the fairytale was on, they led 7-0 and even when Kirkham scored for 7-5 it looked like they might hold on.

Cue Ollie Davies though, and arguably one of the most dramatic St Joseph’s Festival climaxes that there has been.

Millfield sewed up third place with an impressive 19-5 victory over Brighton College to maintain that record of not losing a game since before Covid, though fittingly, given the creativity of their play, Brighton College picked up the Try of the Tournament after an epic Alex Stubbs score v Denstone College on Day 1.

Watch the Try of the Tournament

St Joseph’s College picked up the Plate with a 12-3 victory over Blundell’s. The hosts had been superb all weekend and had one of their best Festivals in years, when St Joseph’s do well at the Festival it is a magical place to be. Hampton picked up third in the Plate, a 20-19 victory over Trinity, whom they had beaten by a point in the Day 1 groups as well.

Wellington College sealed the Bowl title, overcoming a tough opening day to go unbeaten in Day 2, beating the side that got the better of them in the opening game of the weekend, Cheltenham College, 14-7 in the Bowl final. Both were excellent on day 2. Third in that competition went to Strathallan, 12-0 victors over Dulwich College, the Scots were a key side to the general atmosphere and tone of the weekend.

Meanwhile in the Shield Denstone College was delighted to cap a weekend that saw them get better throughout with a 14-7 victory over Whitchurch High to claim that gong, with 3rd going to QEGS Wakefield after an 8-0 victory over RGS Newcastle.

All in all, it was simply one of the great weekends of school rugby. Year on year sixteen teams gather in this pocket on East Anglia – best my injuries, academy absentees, school trips and family holidays, and yet despite all of these obstacles, time and time again utter brilliance and drama are produced.

To see the Kirkham Grammar School celebrations in the end was to witness just how much it takes, how much effort, how much emotional drive, how much courage. All sixteen leave St Joseph’s College knowing that all sixteen have to give that much to it as well.

There is nothing quite like it and no feeling quite like knowing you have given everything. To look at the pride in RGS High Wycombe at what they had done is to know that sometimes winning is not the only thing, it’s the sense that you have given the best of yourselves.

Sometimes though, the winning does matter. And for Kirkham Grammar School that was the case, they knew they were one of the favourites, knew they were playing well, and had been on that journey that we so often see in professional sport where coming close is almost a right of passage before your time comes. This was their time, and when it mattered the most they found a way. The best teams always do.

Two teams came within a whisker, in Millfield and RGS, but these brilliant boys in blue found a way, and in Ollie Davies, they had the man for the moment.

An epic ending to the most epic of St Joseph’s Festivals.

2023 St Joseph’s Festival Results and Standings:

Champions: Kirkham Grammar School

Plate Winners: St Joseph’s College

Bowl Winners: Wellington College

Shield Winner: Denstone College

Player of the Tournament: Ollie Davies (Kirkham Grammar School)

Try of the Tournament: Alex Stubbs (Brighton College vs Denstone College)

Final Standings:

1 Kirkham Grammar

2 RGS High Wycombe

3 Millfield

4 Brighton College

5 St Joseph’s College

6 Blundell’s

7 Hampton

8 Trinity

9 Wellington College

10 Cheltenham College

11 Strathallan

12 Dulwich College

13 Denstone College

14 Whitchurch High

15 QEGS Wakefield

16 RGS Newcastle

De La Salle Trophy Final: Kirkham Grammar School 8-7 RGS High Wycombe        

3rd Place

Millfield 19-5 Brighton College

Trophy Semi-Finals

Brighton College 5-12 RGS High Wycombe

Kirkham Grammar 14-14 Millfield (5-4 on pens)

Trophy Quarter Finals

St Joseph’s College 0-5 Brighton College

Hampton 0-10 RGS High Wycombe

Kirkham Grammar 7-0 Trinity

Millfield 17-3 Blundell’s

Plate Final: St Joseph’s College 12-3 Blundell’s

3rd Place

Hampton 20-19 Trinity

Plate Semi-Finals

St Joseph’s College 14-0 Hampton

Trinity 13-15 Blundell’s

Bowl Final: Wellington College 14-7 Cheltenham College

3rd Place

Strathalan 12-0 Dulwich College

Bowl Semi-Finals

Wellington College 5-5 Strathallan (5-4 on pens)

Cheltenham College 8-3 Dulwich College

Bowl Quarter Finals

Whitchurch HS 0-14 Wellington College

Strathallan 12-7 RGS Newcastle

Cheltenham College 15-3 QEGS Wakefield

Dulwich College 3-0 Denstone College

Shield Final: Denstone College 14-7 Whitchurch High

3rd Place

QEGS Wakefield 8-0 RGS Newcastle

Shield Semi-Finals

Whitchurch HS 29-0 RGS Newcastle

Denstone College 14-12 QEGS Wakefield

Final Group Standings

PosGroup 1Group 2Group 3Group 4
1HamptonKirkham GrammarBrighton CollegeMillfield
2TrinityRGS High WycombeBlundell’sSt Joseph’s College
3Whitchurch HighCheltenham CollegeStrathallanDulwich College
4QEGS WakefieldWellington CollegeDenstone CollegeRGS Newcastle
– NextGen XV
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