Wednesday’s 86th annual Quadrangular final between Wellington College and Nelson College will, without doubt, be remembered as one of the greatest games of schoolboy rugby ever played, a 31-31 draw!
The result is the first draw in a Quadrangular final since the 1983 decider between Wellington College and Wanganui Collegiate. It’s the first draw between Wellington and Nelson since 1986, and just the second time time a live college game has been drawn on the Rugby Channel. The game equaled the record for the highest scoring “Quad” final and breaks the record for the highest scoring game between the two colleges. Wellington and Nelson have played each other 84 times since 1876!
The game on Wednesday featured nine tries, two sin binnings and three dramatic lead changes, the most dramatic of which was Nelson’s comeback from being behind 26-13, four tries to one, at halftime, to lead 31-26 with two minutes to go. Nelson, after scoring the first ten points of the game, conceded 26 of the next 29 points!
Which begs the question, what did Nelson coach Bill Liddell say to his team at halftime? “Nothing out of the ordinary”, the understated Liddell remarked. “If you look at the first ten minutes of the game, we played well and had Wellington unsettled. We just had to stick to our systems.” Liddell says “Our game plan was to take them on up the middle and recycle the ball at speed and then try to move their big forwards around the field, especially out wide.”
But Bill, before Wednesday Nelson had lost their last seven finals against Wellington. Where has this new found self belief come from? “I think the first time a coach brings his players together he has to instill strong values, and adhere to them.” Liddell says, “We have a team with a lot of confidence, talent and unity.” Liddell credits much of Nelson’s success to their pre-season conditioning. “We have worked really hard on our fitness, because we have to be really fit for the type of game we’ve chosen to play. We simply have to play an up-tempo style because we don’t have the size to match other teams.”
A “man amongst boys” on Wednesday was open side flanker Steven Soper. The man of the match scored a stunning individual try to tie the scores and played a major part in Nelson’s revival. Because of injury, prior to the final, Soper had only played about an hour of rugby during the season. What does Soper’s presence mean for Nelson? “He is a wonderful player who has worked really hard to get back into the right condition to play. I think his work ethic brings much inspiration to the team.”
The inspiration required to come back from 26-13 down and lead 31-26 with two minutes to go, appeared to be lost in the last two minutes of the game. Nelson fumbled the ball inside their own 22 and conceded a try in the last play of the game to Wellington fullback Nathan Blundell. What was Nelson thinking, holding onto the ball in such a dangerous area of the field? Liddell again, “I was close to the touch judge at the time and he said there was two minutes to go. Two minutes is a long time in rugby. Our plan was to run down the clock, which we did for over a minute, and then kick the ball out. Kicking the ball straight away would have given them a lot of time to mount an attack; I defend our decision to keep the ball.”
Well and good Bill, but it must be disappointing to draw the game having come from so far behind to nearly win it. “No”, answered Liddell, “Wellington College are a great side with some amazing athletes, I think a draw is a very honourable result. He adds, “It was a thrill to coach the game on Wednesday. The character and skill shown by the boys to come back like that is the reason why you coach. Wednesday brought out the best in both teams.”
Bill also confided he is fond of the phrase “On any given day…”