U18 girls are National Champions
The Borough girls survived a shakey first 20 mins to pull through in style and win the U18s national cup.
Of all the journeys the Pulborough girls have taken this season to play their rugby, this was the longest road.
Starting in Sussex before Christmas, this seasons’s U18s section blended the upcoming girls from u15s into the more senior and experienced girls of the squad, to form a team of depth and ambition.
And the talent was on show from the earliest stages, with a robust win over a solid Old Albanians team demonstrating to coaches, players and parents where this season’s journey could end.
A dominance of our Sussex neighbours was followed by a convincing win of the London/South East area, with wins over both Aylesford and Thurrock. This in turn saw us visit Royal Wootten Basset RFC to play the nervy southern semi-finals. A composed performance and two good wins, including one over last year’s champs and respected adversaries Winscombe, gave the girls the belief they could go all the way.
And so it was that the motley crew of Borough gathered in the early morning of Sunday, to the aroma of a bacon bap farewell from Orange, the tense nervous laughter of Sarah announcing she had forgotten her tickets, and the sound of Kleenex tissues being boxed up for John’s tears.
Coaches and mini-buses were loaded and unloaded under the careful mathematical calculations of Simon. We were ready to go, and submit to the 20 point action plan the RFU had published for the day, with every move orchestrated except the actual result.
The journey passed with the Borough coaches forming a huddle at the front of the bus, kidding each other that this was just another game while cracking jokes about Stiffler’s Mum, even though Stiffler wasn’t there.
Meanwhile at the back of the bus the players re-read the play-book while plaiting hair and singing to the theme tune of Dirty Dancing, which in turn exposed Forwards coach Keith’s love of a good romantic musical (nice Keith, and a little unexpected).
It was not until we got on the A40 that John got the first quiver of emotion, reading out messages of peace and goodwill from social media, lump in the throat stuff, not quite Churchillian, a little more Titanic, but hopefully with a happier ending.
Arrival at Ealing saw the rapid laying out of cones and bags begin at pace, disappointingly not in a colour coordinated fashion, with some symmetry lacking between the narrow channel and wide channel. An omen perhaps?
Anyway, the now well-practiced routine of the girls warming up and the parents hitting the bar took over, and all seemed well.
Nice pitch. Professional referees. Sky cameras in attendance, (although a little under-staffed for the u18s game). Girls in black. Hankies at the ready. Showtime.
So best laid plans and all that…… the Pulborough girls did have a little bit of a shocking start. Newark on the offensive, clearly up for it, and suddenly they were hitting our centre. A whiff of a missed tackle or two and suddenly the Newark crowd were roaring their team on under the posts, for a good try that was followed by a good conversion.
Having conceded only an average of 1 try per game this season (while scoring on average 8+) this was not a very comfortable or familiar position. But no need to panic just yet…… we could do that a little later……
Borough started to take more ownership of the ball and were certainly winning the percentage possession and territory stats, but were failing to convert this in to points.
Penalties started to flow against us and uncharacteristic handling errors were giving the ball back to the oppo. The Pulborough backs, usually a reliable strength of the team, were testing each other’s patience with passes to their feet, behind, above – anywhere but in front.
For their part Newark were scrapping like wildcats with a pressing defence and some great physicality, in part creating these mistakes. This really was a contest.
Another break by Newark looked like another impending disappointment, but new starter Lottie Regan made the first of a number of terrific, vital tackles to snuff out the threat.
Now camped in the Newark twenty two the Borough forwards were determined to take a try around the corner, with repeated pick’n goes being held up by an incredible Newark defence, before being turned over once more by the referee’s whistle.
Staying at the right end, Emily Robinson finally made the Pulborough pressure pay, bossing her way through the creaking Newark defence to earn a now deserved score. With no conversion, Pulborough were still behind, looking vulnerable to breaks while still dominating the territory.
Emily Robinson tidied up the restart and Borough were once more going forward, this time with Lottie Regan in attack down the left-hand side. This time it was Newark who extinguished the immediate threat, only to see the ball shift to the right-hand side where the forwards once more ground out the yards to the try line.
Flo Robinson tried sniping around the side in terrier like fashion, but Newark pressure and little mistakes once more got in the way, meaning the first half finished with the Pulborough girls dominating the possession but still being behind on the scoreboard.
Some stern words from Cap’n Cornforth settled the Borough girls at half time, who pressed the reset button ready for the second half. No need for interference, the girls new what they had to do. Stay Calm and Ruck On.
The second half would see the girls in black benefit from a stiff wind on their backs, and a 3 degree mental gradient meaning it was all downhill from here.
Pulborough applied the pressure from the outset and, while some of the handling was not text book, the confidence was starting to return and more flowing rugby was being played.
The Borough forwards were winning the scrum and managing the numbers at the breakdown better. This in turn was giving a better platform for the backs, who started to show some composure. But mistakes still dogged us. A clear overlap on the left was left hanging and then a penalty created turnover.
But straight back in attack and this time it was Lauren Summers finding some space and piercing the defence only to be held up over the line.
A scrum on the 5 meter line and it looked like a well drilled backs move could gain us the lead on the open side - but in classic Flo fashion, she attacked the blind side to score an individual try that set a fresh tone for the day.
The girls had found another gear, and would find yet another one before the end of the game. Fitness and gritty determination are great assets of the team, and Newark were simultaneously starting to fade, ever so slowly.
Newark were still making breaks, but these were leapt upon by all and everyone to ensure they went nowhere. Blood was in the water.
Perhaps my favourite move of the day was to see Katya Moteul at the back of the ruck (“no 9!” was the shout), and spotting the space in front of her she shrugged off the opportunity to distribute wide, and pierced the guard on the blind side, splitting up a fragile Newark defence.
Making 20 yards, then drawing the defence in, Katya popped off to Rachel Marchesan, aka the Hare, who powered off down the pitch in her inimitable and unstoppable fashion.
A moment to check if any of the Newark girls had the legs for the chase, but no… too late, the hare was gone. New to rugby this season, Rachel scored an excellent try that was so well fashioned by Katya’s game sense.
Flo took the first of three conversions, and Pulborough continued their progress to the silverware.
Another well managed scrum saw the ball reach Lottie Regan for a well-deserved try that topped off a great day for the u16 winger, who would later be showing another type of footwork dancing on the bar back at the clubhouse.
The backs were still not quite 100% their usual purring selves, but were managing to make the best of the ball that was being served up. A rogue ball recovered by Cap’n Cornforth was followed by a characteristic push for the line, broken tackles from Newark and another 7 pointer.
With the score at 29 – 6, the subs off the bench and minutes off the clock, victory was just about certain, although huge respect to Newark for still playing their hearts out.
One final play through the hands saw Cornforth involved once more, passing out to newly-on Lucy Shaw-Hill to confirm the result with a final 7 points, to secure victory at 36 – 7.
The score at the end does not fairly reflect the quality of play and spirit of Newark, who provided an outstanding opposition on the day. But it does reflect the desire and ability of the Pulborough girls to dig themselves out of a hole, play as a team, and win well even when big-game nerves were perhaps affecting play.
All that remained was trophies and medals to be handed out before the celebrations began. Big Kelly had robbed John of his role and was now have a soft blub on the shoulder. Tears, grins and a slow realisation were starting to dawn on the gathered group of players and parents.
(Another match then continued in the background accompanied by the dulcet tones of Simon’s unwavering support for the Quins).
A celebratory journey back found the clubhouse opened by Orange in readiness for beer, pizza and crowd-surfing.
Despite one coach getting a flat the gang was largely reunited back at Freelands, with one obvious omission being Lauren Fisher, who had been called up by Great Britain to play 7’s, and was missed both in spirit and for her skills. Sorry you missed the game Lauren, that you had done so much to set-up.
And so ends our journey, for this season at least. Many of the girls were celebrating their last year of youth rugby, while many were enjoying their first year (of 3) at u18s.
With more talent coming through from this season’s crop of u15s, there is no reason to think Pulborough should not maintain momentum, playing the Pulborough way, as a team united and loving their rugby.
What a day. Maybe even your stern-faced writer was feeling a little emotional at this point, or was that just a little beer in the eye. Nothing a little back-slapping and hugs from John couldn’t sort out. Pass the Kleenex Kelly.
Cue the music Keith…. ‘I’ve had, the time of my Life….”
The 2018 Pulborough National Champions Squad: Aliya Seehawong, Amy Saunders, Cally Whittington, Carla Bonillo, Catherine Wakeford, Chloe Ratcliffe, Ella Russell, Ellie Mae Phillips, Emily Robinson, Flo Robinson, Grace Elsworth Smith, Hannah Whittington, Hatti Fowler, Imogen Brash, Jas Otene-Henworth, Jade Otene-Henworth, Jess Ford, Katya Moteul, Lauren Fisher, Lauren Summers, Lottie Regan, Louisa Ward, Lucy Shaw-Hill, Molly Raynor, Niamh Beckley, Rachel Marchesan, Rosanna Collis, Sarah Cornforth, Zoo Overton
Coaches: John Breach, Kelly Russell, Keith Beckley, Steve Summers