The rugby Season is over. The Varsity passed six months ago, the Six Nations have come and gone, and the Premiership is approaching its final stages. Unless you’re in that peculiar band of people who keep obscene hours in the summer months to watch Super League matches, rugby has all but passed from your life until the autumn. So with two Saturday’s gone Cuppers final, St John's and Queens' met to cap off the year, and they gave the crowd one hell of a show. There were grinding tries scored from scrums. There was an absolute beauty of a try from the opposite half. There were heroics from the defence, and far more tension than I needed at this point in the term.
St John's arrived in the final after a season that, by their standards, was fairly normal. A rocket through the knock-out competition, combined with demolitions of Robinson (29-7) and Girton (47-12) in the quarters and semis and finishing the season at the top of the league, set them up well for the final, and they had the technical edge. Queens', on the other hand, had the fairytale run. In October, they were in Division Five of the League – once the dust had settled, they had rocketed up to Division Three, and secured a place in the final. This was their first final since 1985, and a replay of that match – then, they had lost 10-12 to St St John's. Looking at the teams before the match, the imbalance was clear – St John's had the edge in the pack and form, while Queens' had underdog status and the hand of history.
The match began in predictable form – St John's pushed up into the Queens' half, and for a brief moment it looked as if we could have had a try within the first minute. But, somehow, the Queens' defence held, and a fumble from St John's took the pressure off. Queens' leaked a penalty, and St John's took it to make it 3-0. At this point, the match looked like a foregone conclusion – Queens' were taking time to adjust, and lacked the aggression of the St John's side. They looked shaky.
The next few minutes were a see-saw. St John's pushed, the Queens' defence held. Queens’ pushed, the St John's defence held. Then, after winning a lineout at halfway, Queen’s pushed into the St John's half. A penalty kick to Queens’ made it 3-3. Play restarted, and St John's went into the Queen’s half – a grinding through phases loomed, with a try lurking at the end of it. But Queen’s got possession, and their winger broke free.
He went over the halfway line, rammed up against the edge of the pitch, pursued by the men in red.
He went over the 10 metre line, still outrunning St John's. Red shirts piled in behind him, trying to down him or get him out. He went over the 22, and carried on over the line to score. He’d taken the ball from his own half, and had managed an absolute screamer of a try.
8-3 to Queens’ – suddenly, the game looked very open. Queens’ failed to convert, and play returned to their half. But something had changed. In the stands, Queens’ supporters smelt blood, and the chants picked up- bins were beaten, slogans were yelled, and some of them began to contemplate something which, at the start of the match, had seemed impossible – could they kill the giant?
For the rest of the half, St John's tried and failed to make the breakthrough, before grinding a try out a couple of minutes before the end. They converted, to make it 10-8. They ended the half attempting to grind another one out, with the Queens’ defence holding the line to end the half with a two point deficit. As the teams went in for the interval, there was a sense of the unexpected – Queens’ were still in the game, and St John's seemed a bit, well, unnerved. Using the interval to even things up in the stands, the Queens’ fans migrated over to the other side of the pitch, turning the North Stand into a shed filled with both teams’ supporters.
The second half started, and St John's attempted to turn it into a tryfest. After winning a scrum on the Queens’ 22, they scored and converted to make it 17-8. After a strong display earlier in the match, Queen’s were starting to slip. A penalty soon made it 20-8, and victory accelerated out of Queens’ grasp. But they fought for every inch – they made it 23-13, before St John's scored and converted to make it 30-13. In the dying moments, St John's scored but missed to make it 35-13. After an unnerving first half for the Redboys, they had ground out a victory in the second.
This final was won and lost in the pack. Queen’s struggled at the scrum, with the sheer weight of the St John's pack forcing them back. In the Second Half, St John's were clinical and aggressive, and did what they do best – grind out the tries and put points on the board. They weren’t fun to watch but, as Rugby turns into a game of size and power rather than speed and skill, they’re a sign of the times. They know what works, and they deserved their victory – they might have lost the league to Robinson, but they’re the dominant college side, and look set to be for the foreseeable future.
St John's won, but Queens’ did themselves proud. They played with speed, style, and hope, fighting for every point and making St John's pay for every inch. Their defence was everywhere, and their two tries were things of beauty. They didn’t get the fairytale ending to their season last night, but they’ve laid a foundation for future success. Good luck to them.