Cranleigh School successfully defended their Rosslyn Park Sevens title with a 28-7 defeat of Brighton in fading light in the final after two long and gruelling days. It was a remarkable achievement against mainly larger schools and some fearsome opposition. But it was proof that teamwork, belief and outstanding coaching counts for a lot and was a credit to the boys and coaches, especially the inspirational Andy Houston.
The squad was also playing for the memory of Jake Andrews, one of last year’s leavers who died from cancer at the end of February and whose funeral was held in the Chapel on the second afternoon of the tournament. The squad were given the option to attend but they chose to play as it was almost certainly Jake would have wanted them to do.
The achievement of Cranleigh retaining the title cannot be overstated. On the second day every school we played was bigger, some with more than twice as many boys to pick from. We also became only the fourth school to retain the trophy since the competition began in 1939.
The first day of four group matches contained few alarms. Three straightforward wins (Tasker Milward 59-0, Brooksby Melton College 38-5 and Coleg Llandrillo Cymry 33-12) were followed by a more bruising final game against visitors Utah Cannibals which we won 22-7. But there were casualties; Tom Nichol had to sit out the second day and Rob Cloete followed him on the NTC list.
Our toughest game – labelled by the online commentators as the match of the tournament – was the first of day two in the knockout tie (which was sandwiched between two group stages) against Beechen Cliff School. Leading 7-0, we then found ourselves 7-12 down as the clock ran down only for Harry Barlow to score to take the game into sudden death added time. From the kick-off Beechen Cliff hammered our line, last-ditch tackles from Ed Cooper and then Barlow preventing almost certain tries; the nerves were further tested when a drop goal fell short. After desperate defence Cooper intercepted a pass and ran into the opposition 22, aided by a deft chip on the way over the last defender. Although he was overhauled a second time five metres out, the ball was flung wide at speed and Harry Binnion swallow dived over to win a breathtaking match and take us through to the last eight of the Cup.
And so into another group of four. Our opening game was against Whitgift who started strongly, opening the scoring, before wilting against some fierce talking and penetrating running as we won 26-12. The second match – in effect to decide who won the group – was against Brighton. The teams were old rivals having met three times this winter, with one win each and a draw. Brighton against began well, scoring first before we levelled. A draw seemed on the cards only for Hugh Tizard to bulldoze over with the last play of the game. The final group game was a hard 22-12 win over Kirkham who had already been eliminated.
The semi-final against Bedford was another bruising affair which tested the emotions of a large Cranleigh support of parents and OCs, by this stage boosted by a large number of pupils who had come up after Jake’s funeral. We once more looked down and out, trailing by two points as the clock went red. But the tireless resolve of the squad again came good, hurling the ball from side to side and eventually Binnion punched a hole in the exhausted Bedford defence with the final play.
And so to the final where we again faced Brighton. Both sides were weary going into their tenth game in two days but the match lived up to expectations. Sam Lubbock opened the scoring in the third minute, jinking through a gap in the Brighton line, and then Barlow showed pace to add the second as the first-half ended.
Brighton came back strongly, scoring a converted try inside 40 seconds of the restart, but Cranleigh kept attacking, spraying the ball around the field. Time and time again Brighton piled into the breakdown while Cranleigh held off and made the most of the space they were given. As the narrow Brighton defence were stretched, Barden found space on the right to run in for the third try to put Cranleigh 21-7 up with three minutes remaining.
Brighton then enjoyed their best spell of the match but it was too late and Cranleigh’s defence did what it had all tournament, holding firm and going into every tackle as if the game depended on it. Eventually a weary pass was intercepted by Cooper who punted the ball long down the field. Barden won the chase, gathered his own hack on and dived over to cap a memorable victory.