Inspired by Max Mather’s hat-trick, Downing survived blizzards, hail and Trinity Hall’s second half resurgence at Grange Road to win rugby cuppers for the first time this century and complete their unbeaten season.
Many in the Cambridge rugby community doubted Trinity Hall’s right to be at Grange Road at all. Their previous victories over Robinson and Caius were built on uncontested scrums, thus neutralising two of the university’s strongest packs at a stroke. Adding to the controversy, this match saw them finally fielding a full front row which was duly torn to shreds by a Downing pack which has not exactly impressed throughout the season. Until Singh left the field on the hour clutching his shoulder (which seemed to heal itself the moment he reached the touchline), Trinity Hall lost most of their own scrums and struggled heavily at the line-out.
For the first half, Trinity Hall also struggled to contain the pace, power and skill of Downing fullback Tanaka. It was he who set up Downing’s first try on twenty minutes, beating several defenders for pace before offloading inside to Mather. From the resulting ruck the ball crossed the pitch to left-wing Walls who scored in the corner.
Most of the rest of the first half belonged to Downing as a series of scrums won against the head gave them plenty of ball and allowed Mather to score twice in quick succession, with Tanaka converting both. However, as half time approached and the hail came down, Trinity Hall were able to capitalise on a series of penalties to batter the magenta line. Back-row Harry Williams – Trinity Hall’s strongest runner and only consistent threat – drove to within a metre of the try-line and a hole at the side of ruck allowed scrum-half Bruce to dive over.
With the score at 19-7, heavy snow and a foolhardy streaker greeted the teams at the start of the second half. Trinity Hall got straight onto the front foot as Downing made a mess of a chip over the top which was then hacked on for fly-half Strang to dive on. More Trinity Hall pressure saw Downing captain Rob Hall sent to the sin bin, but the men in black and white were unable to exploit their man advantage and were successfully repulsed.
Having been restored to fifteen men, Downing were again able to assert themselves and a deft kick from Roberts found touch and his forwards stole the resulting line-out giving the opportunity Mather needed to batter his way to a fine hat-trick, capping a impressive individual performance in all departments.
Trinity Hall hit back a few minutes later through Williams to get within three points. But then Tanaka, having been kept quiet for most of the half, displayed the talents for which he is famed in Cambridge rugby circles to cross the line and secure the game for the league champions 29-21.
It was an important occasion – for the first time in a decade the final had not featured one of the college rugby powerhouses – St. John’s, Jesus and St Edmund’s – and Downing’s performance suggested the rise of a new one, or rather the return of an old one from the 1990s. Their performance demonstrated the importance of dominance at a contested set piece which their opponents had, perhaps unfairly, denied other teams. Whether Downing can consolidate their position next year remains to be seen but, as the final whistle blew, the snow lifted and the men in magenta and black could enjoy their day in the sun.