Richard Black Cup: Three In A Row For North Oxford
20/11/23: North Oxford retained the Richard Black Cup in association with Advanta Wealth at Highgate yesterday, narrowly holding off Shrewsbury in a tight final.
Highgate were the dominant team in the Black Cup for a long while, with five wins in a row from 2012-2016, so it was fitting that the competition should be held at HIghgate for the first time this year, with the Eton courts currently unavailable. Unfortunately, there was no Highgate team to go for a home win and it was instead the double defending champions North Oxford who arrived with the targets on their backs this year. It was a much changed North Oxford team from last year's winning sextet, however, with Rachel Wood, Annalise Whitehead, Erin Leatherbarrow and Sophie Clifford-King replaced by Mandie Barnes, Natalie Lilienthal and tournament newcomers Grace Day and Bee Millar.
Personnel toings and froings and last minute changes were very much the order of the day across the board as the competition suffered its usual level of late drop outs from both players and teams (right up until 10 minutes before the sceduled start time). Several of the challengers were also missing players whose presence might have made a big difference to the strength of their team, but it was great to see six full teams take to the start line to battle it out for the trophy, with some familiar faces joined by some new and exciting talent having their first taste of this competition.
The two most inexperienced teams - Shrewsbury's second young second string and Cambridge University - were there to gain valuable experience and try and score a few wins along the way; both teams achieved these goals impressively, with all of their players improving during the course of the day. They will all be back again hopefully, and all the better for getting a whole day of matches under their belts.
The four other teams in the competition all had reasons for optimism - North Oxford as defending champions, Repton with Karen Hird and some talented schoolplayers in their ranks, Ipswich led by Charlotta Cooley with support from Nadia Mason, Aisha Parker and some very young but very talented schoolgirls and Shrewsbury with a nice blend of Old Salopians (Katie Oswald, Emma Graham and Lizzie Ware) and top school players, including last year's schools' championships winner Esther Hurford.
The competition was played as a round robin with matches played up to 15 with the two top finishers then contesting a separate final and a pattern soon began to establish itself: The presence of Karen for Repton and Charlotta for Ipswich meant that they were always in the hunt, with their young teammates all getting stuck in and playing some good Fives. Shrewsbury and North Oxford were the two teams with the greatest strength in depth, however, with Lizzie & Esther for Shrewsbury by far the strongest second pair in the competition and Mandie & Grace going through the group stage unbeaten for North Oxford at third pair.
Shrewsbury 1 and North Oxford were heading the standings at the end of the penultimate round of the group stage, but a tremendous 15-13 for the Ipswich third pair against Shrewsbury 1 meant that there was still some jeopardy going in to the final round. Shrewsbury 1 and North Oxford were playing each other, with both needing to win just one pair to be sure of a place in the final; a 3-0 win either way, though, would give Ipswich the chance to sneak into the final ahead of the losing team, assuming they could produce a 3-0 win themselves over Repton. Ipswich gave it a good go, inflicting the sole defeat of the day on the Repton first pair and winning at third pair, but just coming up short at second. By that stage, however, the dominant Shrewsbury second pair and North Oxford third pair had already done their thing, scoring the point apiece to set up a repeat match in the final.
With the first pair locked at 7-6 (they stopped at that point rather than carrying on to the end only to have to start again immediately) the final looked like it might come down to the top court, which saw 2018 Schools' champions Emma Graham & Katie Oswald taking on serial Black Cup winners Harry Asquith & Francesca Turnbull. Lizzie & Esther duly made short work of Natalie & Bee at second pair to put Shrewsbury one up; Grace & Mandie were not having things their own way at third pair, however, with the young Shrewsbury pair of Alice Beardsmore & Millie Parry raising their game significantly from their previous match and taking an early 6-2 lead. The first pair game was proceeding along similar lines to the first clash with the two pairs evenly matched at 8-8. At this point, Shrewsbury were tantalisingly within reach of a first ever Black Cup win but the momentum quickly began to shift; Grace & Mandie began to work their way back into the third pair game, levelling the scores at 7-7 and 9-9. In the first pair game, Harry & Francesca suddenly hit top gear at just the right time, producing a ten minute purple patch of cut returning, attacking volleys and winning lines into the buttress that saw them race from 8-8 to 15-8 winners in a couple of dramatic hands. At this point attention turnd to the third pair, which would now be decisive. To their credit, none of the four players cracked under pressure, with all four continuing to play well. The difference in the final stages was the experience of Mandie Barnes, cannily exploiting one or two weaknesses she had spotted in her young opponents, and the athleticism and commitment to the volley of Grace Day, who produced a couple of key scrambles and a couple of crucial volley winners just when they were needed, taking the North Oxford pair through to a 15-11 win and a 2-1 victory overall.
This was North Oxford's fifth win in the last sixth editions of the Black Cup - just one behind Highgate's all-time record - but it was also one of the most wide open competitions we've seen. One extra player here or there could easily have been enough for Ipswich or Repton to really challenge for a win, and there were potential Highgate, Westway and Oxford University teams that didn't materialise, all of whom might have given the winners a run for their money.
It was also great to see a significant Old Salopian presence at the sharp end of the competition; Shrewsbury have led the way in schoolgirl Fives in recent years and it is long overdue that the Old Salopian women should start to make their mark at senior level. Let's hope that this is the start of something!
Thanks go to Highgate School for hosting their event, to Advanta Wealth for their continued sponsorship, to Richard Black and Krystyna Vargas for supplying and presenting the prizes, to Natalie Lilienthal and Karen Hird for their organisational help and to everyone who helped organise teams and came along to play in what is always a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.
North Oxford beat Ipswich 2-1 (15-12, 12-15, 15-7)
Shrewsbury 1 beat Cambridge University 3-0 (15-1, 15-0, 15-0)
Repton beat Shrewsbury 2 2-1 (15-3, 15-5, 9-15)
Ipswich beat Cambridge University 3-0 (15-2, 15-0, 15-0)
North Oxford beat Repton 2-1 (5-15, 15-3, 15-2)
Shrewsbury 1 beat Shrewsbury 2 3-0 (15-1, 15-0, 15-3)
North Oxford beat Cambridge University 3-0 (15-2, 15-0, 15-0)
Shrewsbury 1 beat Repton 2-1 (10-15, 15-4, 15-1)
Ipswich beat Shrewsbury 2 3-0 (15-4, 15-7, 15-8)
Repton beat Cambridge University 3-0 (15-9, 15-4, 15-0)
North Oxford beat Shrewsbury 2 3-0 (15-0, 15-8, 15-1)
Shrewsbury 1 beat Ipswich 2-1 (15-10, 15-1, 13-15)
Shrewsbury 2 beat Cambridge University 3-0 (15-3, 15-3, 15-0)
Ipswich beat Repton 2-1 (15-6, 10-15, 15-7)
North Oxford drew with Shrewsbury 1 1½-1½ (6-7, 2-15, 15-3)
Final Group Standings
=1. Shrewsbury 1 & North Oxford 11½ points
3. Ipswich 10 points
4. Repton 8 points
5. Shrewsbury 2 4 points
6. Cambridge University 0 points
North Oxford beat Shrewsbury 1 2-1
H.Asquith & F.Turnbull beat K.Oswald & E.Graham 15-8
B.Millar & N.Lilienthal lost to L.Ware & E.Hurford 0-15
M.Barnes & G.Day beat A.Beardsmore & M.Parry 15-11