Shrewsbury School

The Schools’ National Fives Championships 2012

Thursday 22 March 2012

The National Fives Championship runs over 6 days at the end of each Lent Term, and is the highlight of our Fives season. This year, it was held at Eton and coincided with the last week of term, so the pressure on logistics in trying to get our players back to school as quickly as possible once their games were over was huge. Here, Seb Cooley gives a great insight into it all.

The Schools’ National Fives Championships 2012 - and Shrewsbury School’s part in them

The week began, certainly from my point of view, with massive tarmac miles. 4 buses, 6 journeys, 36 boys, 170 miles each way... and the decision that setting off with the U16s, I would educate them in some proper music. Cue Pink Floyd, Pulse. And cue also various comments from the chaps. “How long is this song, sir?”, about half-way through Shine On you Crazy Diamond (for the philistines reading, the song is written about a former member who lost his mind to drugs, was used to open many of their live sets and, to answer the question, lasts around 13 minutes). My highlight came early on the M40, during High Hopes, when the Floyd, waxing inevitable, came out with the line most pertinent to our situation: “our weary eyes still stray to the horizon, for down this road we’ve been so many times”. The fifth form, mostly, slept.

I fear I missed almost all of Sunday’s play, but I did catch George Lewis and Jamie Humes closing out their final game of the day to make semi-finals of the U15s. And then hopped in the bus and drove back again.
Monday’s matches saw George and Jamie progress to the final (bagging a coveted bagel, 12-0, en route), Henry Blofield & Harry Flowers and Charlie White & Antony Peel reached quarter-finals of the U16s.

I, meanwhile, was circumnavigating Birmingham in the less usual anticlockwise direction but at the perfectly usual 5mph with the upper 6th, of whom Jack Flowers had just joined the great ranks of the twitterati. We were treated to regular updates as his list of disciples swelled; on arrival at Heathrow Central (not so far removed, ideologically, from Galilee Main Donkey Exchange), he had amassed 9, though to his frustration he could only identify one. Adam Morris. As surrealism continued apace, KH reconvened itself in the Oxford services as 3rd and 4th form rowers and 4th, 5th and 6th form Fives players, headed down, up, under, over and sideways, crossed paths. I was half expecting a Domino’s scooter to pull up outside, having pursued from Shropshire. As we settled back down to business, caught up with those who remained from Monday’s play and ate our gourmet Travelodge supper, Grant Williams guaranteed the continued mental challenge with another of his infamous philosophical top-5s. Gradually the guard weakens...

Minibuses squeezed to bursting point with boys and KH lunches then hit the Tuesday morning road to Eton for the Open competition. We had high hopes for many pairs which were quickly shown to be reasonable. Our top pairs progressed without trouble through their groups; there were some close matches, high drama was provided by pair 7 in a pool with Aldenham 1 and St Olave’s 2 (seeded) with a 3-way tie and a points countback. This was in the end just the tip of the dramatic iceberg, for as we immersed ourselves further into the day the tension and close matches built up to an intensity of which Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud. The U16 quarter-finals began in the late afternoon; Flowers and Blofield were dominant throughout, White and Peel were cut short cruelly while 1-0 up following an altercation between Antony’s big toe and a concrete wall. The toe came an emphatic second.

George Lewis and Jamie Humes were in the U15 final against Ipswich (who had never before had a pair in the final but whose young team are playing very well.) Shrewsbury attacked the U15 final with vigour and were quickly in a game that was more nip and tuck than a Los Angeles cosmetic surgery. Not surprisingly, it ended up a 5-game thriller. In the fifth, Ipswich’s rising star raised his game and though George and Jamie kept in touch throughout, they were pipped at the last. It was a very creditable performance from them after just two years playing and we will look to next year’s U16 championship to reverse the result.

Meanwhile shadows lengthened, indeed some feared that spring would turn to summer before play had closed, the 3rd form had long since arrived ready for Wednesday’s U14 competition and Harry Bromley-Davenport and Alex Styles were on court against 4th seeds Highgate 1. There were frenetic rallies, there was mania, there were breaks due to cramp, there was sunset... and of course it went to 2-2. I thought that Shrewsbury had broken the resistance, but the younger of the Highgate pair showed great, quick hands and volleying that was a class better than anyone else’s. Nevertheless for our fifth pair to run the 4th seeds so close is testament to the strength in depth of Salopian fives.

Jack Flowers finished the day on 19 followers.

Those who thought that 8:45 was a late finish to play were in looking perturbed on Wednesday morning, when a record 106 pairs arrived to contest the U14 competition. The logistics required to make a tournament of this size work make London’s transport network look like a merry-go-round. Somehow, amazingly, it ran completely smoothly and efficiently. It was a warm-up day for our U14s, a test against pairs who have been playing rather longer than we.

Meanwhile Blofield & Flowers had their semi-final while Hudson-Williams & Lewis and Welti & Williams were playing quarters. The size of the U14s required that these be started after 6pm. I sense you can predict the corollary. The first pair, to give them their due, were clinical, conceding just ten points in their victory (12-4, 12-5, 12-1). Prior to that they had conceded only 7 points in 6 matches. Our other pairs apparently like to sport with their opponents. Welti and Williams, looking to make sure we didn’t leave too early, went all the way to the traditional 5th game. In the words of Grant, “quelle surprise!” This fifth they won 12-1. After 9pm.

Blofield and Flowers will be desperately disappointed to have lost their semi 3-1. It was a tight, closely-fought match throughout and could at times have gone either way. “Quelle dommage” does not begin to do it justice. May there be hunger for vengeance.

Jack closed the day on 29 followers.

The following morning before heading to the courts, Jack had 34 followers.

The U14 beginners’ competition was a much smaller affair than the previous day’s, and felt like a sigh of relief. The Shrewsbury pairs were well prepared for this after yesterday’s tough tournament and fared well, winning through most of their games. Indeed our top two pairs would have made the last four had pair 2 not had to concede their place in the semi-finals. George Panayi and Tom Breese were pretty emphatic in all of their games, showing class and solidity to make it through without nerves.

The mixed tournament started at 1pm and we contributed 15 pairs to the entry. This is a completely different challenge for our players, who are not used to appropriating quite the same level of chivalry on court. We ended up losing out in both semi-finals (Izzy Barber and Sam Welti in one half of the draw, Alice Long and Connor Jones in the other) to some more balanced Highgate pairs, whose girls have been playing for many years.
But the relaxed nature of the day and the sigh of relief were, predictably, but a highly convincing feint by day 5 of the Championships. The semi-finals of the seniors were to begin at 6pm. We had a pair in each: Henry Lewis and Jack Hudson-Williams were hot favourites for the tournament and saw off a concerted and energetic challenge from St Olave’s 2 without a wobble to win 12-8, 12-5, 12-3. The other semi was exceptionally interesting on paper: Shrewsbury 2, known to be two capable players, against second seeds St Olave’s 1, a mature and proven pair in schools and adult competitions. Shrewsbury could only win by playing a risky, attacking game and working well together. The first game was, not surprisingly, a little cagey but St Olave’s got the better of some protracted exchanges and won the first game. The second was close and nervy as the Shrewsbury pairing was tested on their teamwork and, crucially, their trust in each other to cover all areas of court. Their attack ended up paying off and they levelled at 1-0. The internal work had been begun but I felt the third game was crucial; I couldn’t bring myself to watch and indeed the score headed to 8-8. Shrewsbury reached 10, but St Olave’s drew level and a very bold and trusting call to play the game to 12 paid off as Shrewsbury won the next two rallies to go to game point and won the game shortly thereafter. St Olave’s were always going to battle the fourth but Shrewsbury now had consolidated and were working well together: they managed to absorb any pressure and kept themselves in the game despite the onset of cramp from quite early on. When the Olavian intensity inevitably subsided we were ready and a superb run of cut returns by Guy and some stunning shots in from back court from Sam brought a run of five points which seemed to break the opposition’s resistance. But from 11-5, lacking a rally to close it out, Shrewsbury slipped to 11-10 after three serves each. Was there yet to be a fifth game to this contest?! “No nerves!” came the call from coach Grant Williams at the back. Rarely have I heard anything less probable: I was sweating blood! But Sam and Guy held theirs and finished the game and the match to jubilance from the benches. 8 hours later I am still not breathing normally. Relaxed day? Fat chance!

Harry Flowers closed the day with 13 followers.

Friday. Finals day. This promised to be a more relaxed day. Obviously by now we’d all worked out what a ridiculous notion that is and were therefore steeled for more of the same. It was the major day for our girls, most of whom were playing both in the Open Ladies and in the Beginners ladies. George Panayi and Tom Breese were playing the U14 beginners’ semi-finals (and hopefully final), so there remained plenty to watch.

Our upper 6th pair of Izzy Barber and Alice Long reached semi-finals of the Open ladies: a great result given they were competing against players who have 6 years of experience to their two. The beginners is a tournament which puts us against schools on an equal footing. Such was Shrewsbury’s dominance, all of our top four pairs reached the semi-finals. This testifies to the great enthusiasm and commitment shown by the girls this term and also to the encouragement and coaching of the senior boys and of CWC. Winners in the final were Rosie Parr and Hannah Pritchard, who beat Elen Murphy and Alice Paul in a very closely contested match.

Our U14 beginners, Breese and Panayi, played their semi-final against Eton 3 with sharp and elegant sidestepping of all puns on Tom’s name. They played a close second game but were dominant in the first and third, Tom’s accuracy and George’s reach for volleys proving too much for the opposition. The pair looks a genuinely exciting prospect for the future and murmurings have been heard around the courts that this quality of beginners hasn’t been seen since the current senior captain started out. They went into the final having played some good fives but knowing there were areas in which they could do better; they were going to be tested by Eton 1 and any weaknesses would be exploited. The Salopians, however, raised their game and were fast and accurate, winning a close first game 15-11 and the second 12-7. Did they relax in the third? Did Eton raise their game a notch? A bit of both I think, and they lost that game comprehensively, 3-12. Still, leading 2-1 and knowing very well that the opposition were dangerous and capable of beating them elevated this match into the category of proper sporting encounters that are genuinely a test of the skills and characters of the players involved. George and Tom passed the test, regaining their focus, fighting on and playing their own game to win the fourth game 12-7 and with it the match and the tournament.

Meanwhile on court 8, Shrewsbury 1 and Shrewsbury 2 were playing out the final of the Open tournament. The game’s top psychoanalysts were of the opinion that Sam and Guy were the one pair that Jack and Henry would rather not have had to play and the dynamic was indeed an unusual one for a national final. It was the second pair who raised their game from the start and showed that actually, they’d like to win this. They matched the first pair shot for shot and, having scored the first points, held on to a one- or two-point margin throughout and won the first game. This was something of a wake-up call for Jack and Henry and the first game that Jack had lost at schoolboy level for two years. The first pair then started game two with more intensity and the sort of pace that we are used to seeing from them. They finally looked like a pair who were playing to win a championship and took the second game to level the match. Their consistent pressure did eventually crack Sam and Guy who had stood two enormous tests in the tournament already and couldn’t raise the energy or pace they would have required to win this match. They kept in touch with Jack and Henry but couldn’t get the runs of points to shake the first pair. It was a very worthy final and a spectacular exhibition of the brand of fast, athletic attacking fives that we coach and play at Shrewsbury. The assembled spectators were resoundingly impressed at the speed and level at which the game was played.

Overall I think all are agreed we had an excellent Championships with a good measure of success and thanks to the enormous efforts of the staff (particularly Andy Barnard who tops all of the league tables: hours of admin, number of return trips, credit card bill...) May next season be just as successful!

24th March 2012

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