St John's top-flight experience told as they enjoyed a 27-3 victoryImran Marashli

St John’s 27

Gonville & Caius 3

Rugby Cuppers final, Grange Road

St John’s were crowned the kings of Cambridge college rugby on Thursday night after beating Gonville & Caius 27–3 in the Cuppers final hosted at a raucous Grange Road. The result caps off a remarkable season for the all-conquering Redboys, who are now in proud possession of a treble of Sevens, League and Cuppers titles.

The climax of the college rugby season had all the makings of a terrific tie and was a reprise of the 2014 final from which the Johnians also emerged victorious. St John’s, already Division One and Sevens champions, had triumphed 23–12 over Girton in the semi-final, and faced a Caius team who had come off the back of a table-topping Division Two campaign and a tight-fought 7–0 victory over Robinson in their last-four clash. Both, therefore, came into the final unbeaten all season, and both had their sights fixed on the highly-coveted Cuppers trophy. And it would be the Redboys who prevailed: edging the game offensively and defensively, St John’s were both the irresistible force and the immoveable object.

The first 20 minutes, however, offered little to indicate that the two sides played in different leagues. An early penalty converted by fly-half Owen Perks gave the Division Two underdogs a 3–0 lead to reward a bright start before John’s could find their rhythm. The Caius defence – which had kept clean sheets against Jesus and Robinson en route to the final – then put on an exemplary display of dogged, watertight defending to keep the first Johnian invasions at bay.

John’s seemed to be on the cusp of breaking through the Caius defence on multiple occasions, only to be denied by brilliant try-saving tackles from Jordan Fisher and James Hargreaves by the left touchline. Setting up camp in Caian territory thanks to the industrial kicking accuracy and consistency of George Griffiths, John’s forced penalty after penalty out of their opponents, but lacked the composure at the critical moment to unlock their defence. One switch of play in particular went begging agonisingly when an intelligently created overload on the right was squandered by a knock-on from Tim Jones.

The breakthrough, though, eventually and deservedly arrived. Another series of penalties and line-outs in the 22 overcame Caius’s ferocious rucking, and this time a well-worked spreading of the play out wide bore fruit as Griffiths went over to get John’s on the board with a converted try for a 7–3 advantage.

Caius mounted a spirited reply immediately from the re-start, with full-back Ruben Tadmor linking up well with Will Davis on the right flank to drive deep into John’s territory. However, there would be no breaching of the John’s defence, and the Redboys’ forward pack in particular played a huge role at the scrum to form the bedrock of the St John’s defensive resistance and offensive battering ram. Nevertheless, the match was evenly poised as half time approached.

And then came the John’s sucker punch.

The wet conditions told for Caius, who lost out to opponents from a division aboveImran Marashli

The quality of the Division One champions began to tell as Caius’s indiscipline crept into the game, allowing Griffiths to extend the lead to 10–3 with a penalty with only a couple of minutes left in the half. From the restart, the Caians sought to end the half with a penalty of their own, but Perks crashed his kick against the post. Deep in John’s territory from the rebound, Caius sensed that the miss could provide a still greater reward.

However, as the ball was worked towards the left, a pass was intercepted brilliantly by Dan Blick, who proceeded to embark on a lightning-quick break down the right wing. No one looked likely to catch him the further he advanced, and the Johnian was pumping his fist in triumph before he had even got to the tryline, such was the devastating nature of the blow landed. It was simply ruthless from the Division One champions, undoing Caius’s endeavours by punishing their mistakes to the maximum. Griffiths’s brilliant conversion from a tight angle ended the first-half scoring at 17–3, leaving Caius reeling and with a mountain to climb in the remaining 40 minutes of play.

Nonetheless, Caius, emerging first from the changing rooms in a tight-knit huddle, put up a spirited display against a John’s team that ultimately proved too classy in defence and in attack to overcome. The entry of Judah Aiyenuro added further power to an already formidable forward pack, and another Griffiths penalty stretched the lead to 20–3.

The game was well and truly put out of reach when John’s breached the Caius defence for a third time. A line-out malfunction fatally gifted possession to John’s deep into Caius territory, and, despite more frantic Caius rearguard action, John’s grabbed the third try under the posts through Joe Sharpe. A simple conversion for Griffiths proved to be the last score at 27–3.

Once again, then, John’s had mercilessly pounced on their opponents’ slip-ups and made them pay dearly. But they were not allowed to run away with it, much to the credit of a spirited Caius. The majority of the game’s remainder was therefore played out in John’s territory, as wave upon wave of Caius attacks ploughed into and, ultimately, broke up against the great wall of John’s. At no stage did John’s allow Caius to build up a protracted series of phases. The Redboys’ scrum led the way in shoring up the defence whenever Caius advanced, while Caius were left regretting some error-strewn handling that brought their promising opportunities to an abrupt halt, which was symptomatic of the small margins by which the game was decided at key junctures.

With five minutes left, Caius were on the threshold of the tryline, but a stubborn John’s defence buffeted every desperate Caius attempt to get over the line. In the end, the Caians ran out of time, their courageous efforts petering out with the final whistle. They huffed, and they puffed, but in the end they were unable to blow the John’s house down.

St John's work in the scrum helped keep Caius at bayImran Marashli

Speaking exclusively with Varsity, Gonville & Caius captain Leo Sixsmith was visibly emotional but proud of his side’s achievements: “They’re a really big side, and they’ve got a lot of depth to their team and a huge squad”, he explained. “Because we’ve been in Division Two we’ve been able to run through people pretty easily. It’s only been in the semis and the quarters where we’ve had to face big sides.”

Regretting what might have been, he added: “We had about four chances in the first half, but it was a slippy ball, we dropped balls. We gave away too many penalties and, going to ground, we lost it straightaway.”

Caius, however, can look back on their progress in the 2016/7 season fondly: “Over the last four years the team has come from the depths of Division Three, and we got to the final three years ago. Since that moment, we’ve been building as a club, and this year some really good players joined the team. It’s very difficult for any side to get to this level. I think our side will remember this day in years to come more vividly. Playing John’s was a rite of passage for them, and they [John’s] do deserve the win because they’ve got some very strong boys. But I’m proud of the Caius boys, we put up so much fight and so much energy. It will be stuck in people’s heads for life – I really mean that.”

Conversely, Jacob Heath, the injured John’s captain, took stock of a stunning season for his team: “Caius put up a really good fight, especially in the first half, and knocked us back a bit”, he conceded. “But our fitness in the end paid off. Playing with these boys all season has been excellent: they’ve been really stuck in the whole way through. I think the win’s been deserved in the end. Congratulations to Caius for a really hard-fought match.

“Coming into this game we knew nothing about Caius apart from what we’d seen in the semi-final, which was obviously a very tight affair, and they came out strong from that, so we knew we were going to be in for a big match.”

On standout performer Griffiths, the Johnian added: “He’s been a bit of a revelation for everyone! He’s not had to do too many kicks this season, but he really turned it on when it became important.”

The Redboys celebrate a richly-deserved Cuppers triumphImran Marashli

Gonville & Caius: Uwais, Gristock, Fisher, Whitley, Hargreaves, Hardman, McMahon, Sixsmith (c), Blythe, Perks, Davis, Crush, Bonthrone, Benson, Tadmor

Substitutes: Fitzsimmons, Newman-Sanders, Fletcher, Anderton

St John’s: Somers, Zarrabian, Moros*, Morris, Hughes, Colgan (c), Jones, Lake, Ashworth, Blick, McDonnell, Griffiths, Sharpe, Halfpenny, Cherezov*

Substitutes: Ita, Aiyenuro, Boyd-Taylor, Hugkulstone*, Kelly, Hall, Baxter, Senanayake

*Denotes Blue