JR Henderson Cup Final: Uni edge Norths in tense opener

Photo: AJF Photography

The first silverware of grand final day last weekend headed south over the Harbour Bridge, as Sydney University lifted their fourth JR Henderson Cup in the last five years with a hard-fought 17-14 win over Northern Suburbs.

Uni came into the game as Minor Premiers, but were wary of a Norths side who had only lost one game all year – to the Students – and were enjoying ‘home’ advantage at the iconic North Sydney Oval. But a tense opening 10 minutes saw neither side wanting to make the first serious mistake, with Norths shading the breakdown and Uni playing at a quick tempo with ball in hand, but struggling to make much headway.

But when Uni were pinged for not rolling away from what was the Shoremen’s first visit inside their opponent’s 22 on nine minutes, flyhalf Joe Jenkins slotted from in front to open the scoring.

That was soon cancelled out when a knock on off the restart afforded Uni field position with a scrum, and having worked their way towards the posts off a number of carries, an offside against Norths was punished by 3pts from veteran Scott Stumbles.

The score appeared to settle Uni, who began to find their rhythm. They put together the best passage of play in the game so far a few minutes later, with eleven phases stretching Norths defensive line, but the red and black wall stood firm and a perfectly executed strip from skipper Dom Longhurst cleared the danger.

The Students ramped up the pressure, pinning Norths in their own half with some accurate kicks and an aggressive kick-chase forcing errors and starving the Shoremen of any ball with which to change the picture. And they got their reward on 24 minutes, Stumbles feeding halves partner Adam Perri off the back of the scrum, and his pass unleashing outside centre Ben Stanton, who brushed aside his opposite number before powering home with a couple of desperate Shoremen hanging off his coat-tails.

Ben Stanton_Sydney Uni_JRHC_2017_AJF

Ben Stanton powers his way towards the line for Uni – Photo: AJF Photography

Stumbles added the extras, and even with one half of footy and then some up their sleeves, you got the feeling that Norths needed something before the break just to arrest Uni’s momentum and growing confidence, and indeed, to lift their own. They got their chance two minutes before oranges, Uni openside Jack Stanford pinged for not releasing, and Jenkins reducing the arrears to 10-6 to leave the game very much in the balance.

Clearly buoyed by that late score, the Shoremen returned from the sheds with a renewed spring in their step and reversed the first half trend with their own pressure game forcing Uni backwards, and allowing them to start asking their own attacking questions. Longhurst and Jenkins were finally getting some front-foot ball and had a bevy of willing runners in support, one of whom was no.8 Ben Martin, who smashed his way over just three minutes after the restart, only to be held up by a desperate Uni scramble.

Undeterred, Norths went again off the ensuing five-metre scrum and produced a textbook first-phase try. Longhurst fed Jenkins, who took it to the line and used a tidy dummy run from his inside centre Nick Marshall to create a gap, and a neat reverse pass put replacement Hugh Adams straight through it, and over in style.

Hugh Adams_Norths_JRHC_2017_CC

Hugh Adams dives home for Norths – Photo: Clay Cross

Jenkins blotted his copybook somewhat by shanking what should have been a fairly straightforward conversion, but with their noses in front at 11-10, they certainly seemed to have wrestled control of the game from the Minor Premiers. And it was through their industrious flyhalf that they nearly went in again, Jenkins stepping and fending his way a good 30 metres before his final pass was spilt forward by an over-eager Adams in search of a double.

Big William Tuitupou came on for Uni at no.8, shifting veteran Tim Davidson back out to the no.12 spot he had enjoyed for most of the season, and the arrival of the burly loose-forward proved to be a pivotal moment in the match. His first involvement, a barnstorming run over halfway that eventually led to the elusive Jaason Finau being shepherded over the touchline half a metre shy of the corner post, was an ominous sign of things to come.

But Norths held firm and were soon back at the other end of the field, and after more concerted pressure, repeat infringements from Uni earned a warning for captain Josh Schwager, and three more points for the Shoremen courtesy of Jenkins’ recalibrated boot.

14-10 ahead with around 15 to go, Norths probably needed another score of some kind at this point to press home their advantage, and force Uni into some catch-up footy. But the Students have long had that big game-winning mentality bred into them, and under the calm influence of their captain, and his two on-field generals Stumbles and Davidson, who have been there and done it all before on so many occasions, they set about applying the choke-hold that would turn the game back in their favour.

Setting up camp in the Norths’ red zone, they tapped a penalty from in front in search of greater reward, but took the scrum option when nothing eventuated. And two scrums and one penalty later, a third engagement gave them their just desserts, the ubiquitous Tuitupou proving too much to handle from a couple of metres, and Stumbles converted for a three point lead.

The evergreen scrumhalf couldn’t repeat the trick with five minutes to go however, pulling a penalty attempt uncharacteristically wide as Uni looked to land the knockout blow. But the Shoremen, having also seen the unfortunate Nick Marshall stretchered off with a nasty looking leg injury, seemed to have run out of puff just at the wrong time.

With the clock ticking down, Uni simply wouldn’t cough up the possession that Norths craved in order to try and pull something out of the fire. And thanks to several bulwarking charges from Tuitupou, and a willingness to keep ball in hand and run their opponents into submission, they successfully saw out the remaining couple of minutes intact and ended the game in the ascendancy.

When Josh Schwager was held-up over the line after the siren, referee Ben Wawn checked with his assistants before calling time to signal another JR Henderson Cup victory for the Students, and a gallant but frustrating loss for the Shoremen.

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 17 (Ben Stanton, William Tuitupou tries; Scott Stumbles 2 cons, pen) defeated NORTHERN SUBURBS 14 (Hugh Adams try; Joe Jenkins 3 pens)

2017 JR Henderson Cup winners_Sydney Uni_AJF

2017 JR Henderson Cup winners: SYDNEY UNIVERSITY – Photo: AJF Photography

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SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: 1. Jordan Sukkar; 2. Patrick O’Doherty; 3. Jack Bliss; 4. Harrison Williams; 5. Thomas Willson; 6. Josh Schwager (c); 7. Jack Stanford; 8. Tim Davidson; 9. Scott Stumbles; 10. Adam Perri; 11. Kazuki Takakura; 12. Jaason Finau; 13. Ben Stanton; 14. Patrick Muller; 15. Nick Burden – Replacements: George Hudd; William Tuitupou; Aidan Brown; Hamiora Mihaka; Saia Tanginoa; Mesake Tagituimua

NORTHERN SUBURBS: 1. Matt White; 2. Josh Clifton; 3. Karl Truijens; 4. Jono Corliss; 5. Al Hall; 6. Oscar Doughty; 7. Harry Lind; 8. Ben Martin; 9. Dom Longhurst; 10. Joe Jenkins; 11. Patrick Nakkan; 12. Nick Marshall; 13. Alec McSpadden; 14. Tom Olds; 15. Killian O’Leary – Replacements: Ash Hall; Joe Dawson; Sape Misa; Henry Mikkelsen; James Knight; Tom Evans; Phil Pale

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WHAT THEY SAID…

 Sydney University head coach Will Davies:

“What an unbelievable game of footy that was – absolute grand final footy. It was always going to be tough and we knew that Norths were going to be a good outfit and they really tested us, but I think our subs probably won it for us today. They came on in that last 20 minutes and gave us massive roll-on in the crucial back quarter of the game.

“We had a massive focus on converting points inside the red zone. In the first half, we only came away with about three points out of about four or five times we entered, so at half-time we had a focus on ball retention to wind them down, and when the subs came on as I said, we just started to get that momentum inside the 22 and started converting points. We only get about 25 minutes out of William [Tuitupou], so we used that wisely!

“It’s finals footy, you take the opportunities that you get and in that second half, we probably took more opportunities than Norths did and that’s how the scoreboard ended up. But it was brilliant to have the stalwarts out there in Davo and Stumbo. They just knew how to manage the game and how to dictate the moments in the game so props to them, they’ve helped us out a lot this year and we probably couldn’t have done it without them.

“Props to all the boys, they really worked hard for it this year and put so much effort in, they deserve that outcome. I’m proud of them.”

Northern Suburbs captain Dom Longhurst:

“It was a very tight affair all the way through and it was teetering between one and three points for most of it today, and it’s been like that every time we’ve played them this season. We didn’t have much ball in the first half, and again in the second and that really hurt us in the end. The limited amount of possession obviously reduced our ability to get some points.

“It’s the story of our season. We tend to turn up to play rugby in the second half, and those second halves have been exceptional this year, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get over the top to win the game today. We do like to put some phases together, and we started to do that well, but we didn’t do it for long enough to make the difference on this occasion.

“They ran the clock down really well, took a couple of scrums in a row as opposed to kicking at goal, and when they capitalised off that to score a try as well, it made it hard for us to come back.

“There’s a lot of positives to come away with. We’ve got a really good nucleus of boys in our team, a number of whom have reached 100 caps for the club this year, so a lot of that will fold over into next year. It’s been a tremendous season with only two losses, but unfortunately the one we needed to win was one of them. Both losses were to Sydney University so they had the better of us across the season and run out overall winners, and congratulations to them.”

Sydney University captain Josh Schwager:

“We were one and two all season and the last time they lost a game was to us back in round four down in Bowral, so they’ve been a very competitive side all year. We’ve seen them play the last couple of weeks, they’ve hit hard up the middle and their defence has been great, so we just knew that we’d have to try and wear them down and pick our moments when we had them and luckily, it paid off for us today.

Josh Schwager_Sydney Uni_JRHC_2017_AJF

Skipper Josh Schwager receives the trophy Photo: AJF Photography

“When they scored that try the momentum definitely shifted at the start of that second half and they were firing. They were really bending us but luckily there were some errors off kick-offs and that’s where it really changed. We had an option at one point of whether to take the points or to attack the scrum, and we’ve been confident with our scrum all year so we backed it, and we ended up getting a couple of penalties and then getting over and that was the seven points that put us in front.

“I think with these 60 minute games in 4th grade, it is a slug-out. Last week we had a 9-6 win over Gordon so it’s been a grind, and I think it was the same for Norths in their semi-final, so it’s definitely a war of attrition and it’s amazing to get the result after all the work we’ve put in this year.

“To have those blokes (Stumbles and Davidson) out there, both absolute legends of the game with a number of 1st grade Premierships between them, and to get the chance to captain with Davo in the team, it’s been unbelievable. I can’t even begin to thank them enough for the amount they’ve added this year.”

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