EFA Trophy: Qualification Goes Down To The Wire In Thrilling Finale
20/11/17: This year's EFA Trophy qualification round took place at Eton on Sunday in its new pre-Christmas slot, with a large entry of 10 teams and another fantastic day of Fives, featuring the full range of youngsters, students, veterans, top women players, regular club players and players returning to Fives after a long absence, all topped off with a thrilling final round of matches that left the qualifying places in doubt right up until the last minute.
The draw split the teams into two groups of five. Recent EFA Trophy finals day regulars the Old Salopians, Old Wulfrunians, North Oxford and Oxford University were joined by the Old Ipswichians, Old Citizens, Lancing, London Universities, Westway and a Charterhouse/Cranleigh combined team with the teams all playing the other sides in their group across three pairs with each contest consisting of two games to 12. Two qualifying spots were available for the two teams in each group with the most games won during the course of the day.
Best dressed team in Group A were undoubtedly the Old Citizens, led by Chris Ballingall and sporting their new 125th anniversary shirts. It was good to see the Cits back in the competition after a few years away and they acquitted themselves well, pushing all of the other teams hard and picking up a few handy wins along the way. Also back after a short absence from the competition were Lancing with a good blend of youth and experience and featuring school alumni plus members of the Tuesday night local club run by Matthew Beard (including Old Salopian Al Taylor, a pet Salopian being this year's must have EFA Trophy accessory). The actual Salopian team (Grant Williams, Mike Hughes, Samson Yick, James Skelton, Tom Brunskill and Tom Bromley-Davenport) was as strong as ever and managed to do enough against main challengers North Oxford (a 4-2 win) and London Universities (3-3 draw) to top the group and claim their place in the semi-finals before sitting out the final round. While Lancing and the Citizens fought over the Group A wooden spoon, North Oxford and London Universities were locked in a thrilling winner-takes-all battle for the second qualifying spot.
With both teams going into the match on 14 points (London Universities having done slightly better than North Oxford against the Salopians but also having dropped a point to Lancing), a decisive result for either team would see them through. A 3-3 draw, however, and all would be decided by points difference in the six games about to be played. The Westminster/Highgate team of Matt Lewin, Will Capstick and Abhishek Bhattacharya (UCL), Sahil Shah and Kotka Lim (Imperial) and Dan Marshall (LSE) got off to an absolute flying start. Lewin & Shah won the first game at first pair against North Oxford's Salopians - Summer Fields coach Sam Mcloughlin & Adam Aslam-Baskeyfield - to 8, a result repeated by Capstick & Bhattacharya at pair two against Chris Lloyd & David Cox. With Lim & Marshall also going 1-0 up at third pair against Spencer Chapman & Karen Hird, the student side looked heavy odds on to go through as North Oxford would need to turn round all three pairs in the second game and overturn a points deficit of 11. The Oxford side hadn't given up, however, and Mcloughlin and Aslam-Baskeyfield started the comeback with a typically aggressive high tempo Salopian performance, getting ahead early on at first pair and winning 12-9 to get North Oxford's first point on the board and reduce the points deficit by three. Lloyd & Cox then suddenly hit a purple patch at second pair, making a decisive move by not only winning the second game but winning it to 5, meaning that a win of any sort in the second game of the third pair match would take North Oxford through (a 12-11 win would mean North Oxford qualifying on overall points difference in the whole group). Hird & Chapman were 6-8 down to Lim & Marshall at this point, but inspired by memories of a similar comeback that they had been a part of in the final of the 2017 Westway Summer Superleague, the North Oxford pair set the seal on an improbable comeback win, coming through 12-9 to take their side into the last four and leave the London side stunned.
For much of the afternoon, Group B looked even harder to call. It was a delight to see a young Westway team take part, led by coaches Dan Pritchard & Andrew Ibbetson and despite coming fifth they put in some fine performances and more than held their own against some far more experienced opposition. The Charterhouse/Cranleigh team - Phil & Michael Roper, Alex Knight, Will Howard, Archie Cameron-Blackie, Ronald Pattison and guest player Phil Lyndon - looked like contenders early on but ran out of steam somewhat as injuries began to take their toll. Injury was also playing a part for group favourites and 2016 winners Oxford University with Sam Oppenheimer hurting his knee in the first match, and having to pull out at the halfway stage, meaning third pair had to be conceded against both main rivals the Old Ipswichians and Old Wulfrunians. The OIs have been strong contenders for the last couple of tournaments and have been hugely unlucky to miss out on a last four spot by the narrowest of margins. Captain Tim Gregory had all bases covered this year with a squad of nine, including younger legs from Simon Cass, Alex Yusaf, Will Gibbons and Isaac Weaver, a touch of national champion class from Charlotta Cooley, a solid engine room in Tim himself and Steve Burnell plus a couple of gnarled veterans in the form of Peter Boughton and John Caudle. The Wulfrunians were led as always by their star man Sid Simmons and featured the usual supporting cast of Mark A Yates, Phil Bullock and Andy Husselbee plus the returning Rich Ambler and guest players Andrew White and Tom Tsang.
It took until the end of the fourth round of matches for the picture to become clear. The Ipswichians were finished and on 16 points; C/C and Westway were out of contention and playing each other; Oxford University were on 16 points despite Oppenheimer's injury and through already and the Wulfrunians were on 11 and due to play against the University. With two points from the conceded third pair in the bag already, if the Wulfrunians managed to win both remaining pairs 2-0 they would top the group and knock the Ipswichians out. The Oxford side suddenly found themselves being cheered on by half of Suffolk as captain Tom Kirkby & Fergus Imrie took on Simmons & Husselbee and Noah Caplin & Hal Gibson-Leitao went up against Ambler & Yates. The tension continued to mount as Simmons & Husselbee won the first game. Could the OIs be about to fall at the final hurdle once again? Not this time, as Caplin & Gibson-Leitao earned themselves each a free pint of Adnams on their next visit to the Greyhound by taking the first game of their match 12-8, sending Oxford through as group winners and the Ipswichians through in second place to end a thrilling final hour or so of play.
The semi-finals and final will take place at Eton on Sunday February 18th and will see the Old Ipswichians take on the Old Salopians in one semi-final with the other match a repeat of last year - the town and gown derby between the University and North Oxford.
My thanks go to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament, to all those who played and to Chris Ballingall, Matthew Beard, Al Taylor, Sahil Shah, Tim Gregory, Sid Simmons, Tom Kirkby, Dan Pritchard, Alex Knight, Ronald Pattison and Will Howard for their help in raising teams and making the day such a success.
1. Old Salopians 19 points
2. North Oxford 17 points*
3. London Universities 17 points*
4. Lancing 5 points
5. Old Citizens 2 points
*The match between the two teams was a 3-3 draw. North Oxford qualify with a better points difference (+2) in the head to head match.
1. Oxford University 19 points
2. Old Ipswichians 16 points
3. Old Wulfrunians 14 points
4. Charterhouse/Cranleigh 8 points
5. Westway 3 points
Semi-finals at Eton on 18/02/18
Oxford University v North Oxford
Old Salopians v Old Ipswichians