Having certainly earned their right to be in the final with victories over RGS Lancaster, Bradford GS, St Ambrose and Hutton GS, AKS arrived at the Preston Grasshoppers ground in a very positive frame of mind for the UCLAN North of England Floodlit Cup final. The team was eagerly anticipating the challenge that The Manchester Grammar School were to throw at them, and were clearly not just turning up just to make up the numbers.
The pitch, having recovered from the appalling weather earlier in the season, was in perfect condition for open flowing rugby, and so it was just to be the gusting wind that the teams had to deal with. Unfortunately with Oskar Howarth injuring his ankle in the warm-up, Sunil Hutchinson stepped in to prove a worthy replacement in the back row, as Kieran Kelly filled the No 8 role.
AKS, began brightly, forcing MGS into mistakes and denying them any opportunity of getting into the game. After just two minutes scrum-half Tyne Davis showed terrific awareness to box kick behind the MGS defence, only for Alex Stanier to knock-on in attempting to ground the ball. Not to be phased, the pack worked tirelessly to put the side from Manchester under pressure at every opportunity.
On six minutes came the first incisive line break, and a piece of real quality play. Tom Lanigan produced an excellent ball off the top of the lineout which Davis fizzed into mid field. Fly-half Ellis Whorlton-Jones dummied inside centre Alex Vowles-Bradley, before switching with outside centre Elliot Fackey, who hit a quite sublime line to cut through the flailing tackles to round the full-back and score under the posts. Davis added the extras for a 7-0 lead as the training ground move was executed superbly from start to finish
Although AKS had the swirling wind at their backs, the game was played in the middle third of the field for much of the half. Davis was narrowly wide with two long range penalty attempts and as MGS gained momentum, it took some excellent kicks from Whorlton-Jones in open play to ensure that they were pegged back deep into their own territory. Nonetheless, following a sweeping break up field, the MGS pack began to attack close to the break down, which ultimately created an overlap which the powerful left winger exploited to score wide out. Although the conversion was missed MGS were certainly back in contention. With AKS leading just 7-5 at the break, they were going to have to dig deep when playing into the wind in the second-half in order to maintain their lead.
Following a number of half-time substitutions, MGS began to dominate the scrum and allow them to attack from the base. Indeed, within just a few minutes gone in the half, MGS took the lead with a long range effort from the back of the scrum and although the long range conversion hit the upright, AKS trailed 10-7. However, from the restart, AKS showed their real character. As Lanigan and Garrod put pressure on the catcher and huge pressure in scrum following the knock-on, Davis once again showed he was alive to the situation.
In taking a quick tap penalty he neatly fed Whorlton-Jones, a well timed pass to Fackey enabled him to break the first tackle. As the space opened up in front of him, he then beat three further defenders to dive and score close to the posts. Davis again added the conversion, as AKS regained the lead 14-10.
With some 20 minutes still remaining, the game was on a knife edge. Howarth appeared to have made a sufficient recovery and was introduced at No 8. He combined well with Kelly and the front row of John Cowell, Will Nickson and Blake Wilkinson, plus replacement Matt Tighe, as the pack grafted at every situation to keep the forward momentum going. However it was the defensive work of the entire team that was to really determine the outcome.
MGS attacked with wave after wave of attacks, only to be stopped in their tracks on every occasion. Stanier and the second row pairing of Matt Garrod and Lanigan tackled themselves to a standstill. The wingers Myles Dunlop, Sam Lavelle and replacement Charlie McLaine supported Jordan Makepeace at every opportunity, as the back three counter-attacked well with all kick returns. It was however the midfield trio of Whorlton-Jones, Vowles-Bradley and Fackey that ensured the defensive line remained intact. Whilst the MGS fly-half posed a real running threat, he was thwarted at every opportunity as the AKS side were determined not to let the lead slip.
Despite being reduced to 14 men for the final eight minutes and with no further scores in the game, AKS held out to earn a thoroughly deserved victory, much to the delight of the many pupils, parents and friends that had come to support them. It was 14 years since the school (Arnold) last won this competition, with a side that boasted the talents of three boys that went on to represent England Schools – maybe something similar lies ahead for some of the boys in this squad?
The cup was presented to a delighted captain Will Nickson and the team by the sponsors at UCLAN, who in turn gave a brief speech thanking all those involved, not least Preston Grasshoppers RFC and Nick Passenger for organising the competition.
This was a fantastic occasion for the school and the squad as a whole in winning a competition of this nature, with 24 teams coming from all over the North of England. Whilst just 18 boys played their part on the night, the squad players of Tom Forster, David Maddox, Joe Frith-Jones, Sam Royle, Adam Lanigan and Cameron McKenzie, not to mention injured Matt Patterson, all deserve great credit for their part in the success of the season. The dedication and hard work of the whole squad bodes well for the future of AKS rugby.
Robbie Jones (Director of PE)