It was a night to remember for the Verulam School Year 11s as they took top honours in the Hertfordshire county final of the RFL Champion Schools Competition, hosted by Hemel Stags.
Following a round robin festival of shortened fast-paced games, Verulam and John F Kennedy School emerged as the top-two teams – beating off competition from Kings Langley, Adeyfield, Longdean, Cavendish and Hemel Hempstead School.
The final was played under floodlights at Pennine Way, and the match began with the intensity you would expect of a county final between two top quality sides.
Prior to the game, JFK teacher Jack Joyce had asked for communication among his players, and they delivered right from the kick-off.
Captain Ola Olatunde directed his troops and, in the first set of the game, Steven Collingwood charged through a stunned Verulam defence to score the opening try.
But St Albans side Verulam quickly recovered with a try from prop forward Finatan Quirke, palming off several defenders to score in the corner.
Continued pressure in the JFK half soon resulted in another try for Verulam, courtesy of stand-off Alfie Booth.
Collingwood again stepped up to reply for JFK just before half-time, bursting through from distance with his blistering pace to score a try converted by Ed Linnegar.
The half-time score was 10-8 to JFK, who had won the competition for the previous three years at Year 8, 9 and 10 levels.
The second half did not start well for the Hemel side, however, with three quick-fire tries from Verulam putting them in command of the game.
Collingwood’s pace was matched by flying winger Francis Grundy for Verulam. Grundy swooped on a loose ball on the halfway line and sprinted clear, with Robbie Nicolaou kicking the conversion.
This was followed by Booth reading JFK’s play terrifically to intercept a pass from his opposing stand-off; again Nicolaou added the extras.
Verulam man of the match Booth, who was doubling up after competing in the Year 10 festival that afternoon, performed outstandingly in the year above by showing that he can not only score tries but can set them up too.
Booth threw a missile out to the wing where Grundy walked in untouched. Nicolaou was again successful with the extras, widening the gap to 26-10.
The attitude of the JFK players was highly commendable, and their stand-out player Olatunde managed to power his way over from a tap penalty 10 metres from the Verulam line to bring the score back to 26-16 following the Linnegar conversion.
The game was rounded off with Grundy completing his hat-trick, again scoring a good winger’s try by hugging the touchline and outpacing defenders to dot down in the corner. Nicolaou added the extras to produce a final score of 32-16 to Verulam.
The discipline they demonstrated – not only to adhere to the instructions of teacher Gareth Waters, but to maintain possession and build pressure in the opposition half – proved telling for the St Albans representatives.
Verulam will now progress to the quarter-finals as Hertfordshire champions and will face the winner of the North London strand of the competition