The Midlands and the North took the first day honours with narrow victories in an entertaining start to this season's Under-18 Divisional Festival at Broadstreet RFC near Coventry today.
The Midlands held off a fightback by the South West to open the festival with an 18-12, the North left it until the final play of the game before they sealed a 22-20 victory over London & the South East.
There was little to choose between the sides in either contest, both producing plenty of enterprise and aggressive defence for the watching England selectors who will name a preliminary training squad for the AER (Association of European Rugby) tournament in Treviso, Italy in March after the second day of the festival on Sunday.
The Midlands established an important 13-0 lead in the opening game thanks to an early penalty from fly-half David Marshall (Nottingham HS, Nottingham and Notts, Lincs & Derbyshire) and a try from a charged down clearance scored by hooker Robert Beddard (Hartpury College, Burton and Staffordshire) and improved by Marshall.
Marshall added a second penalty within three minutes of the re-start but the South West, who had lost plenty of possesion in contact in the first half, looked after the ball much better in the second period and fought their way back into the game.
Replacement lock Rhys Jones (Corsham School, Corsham and Dorset & Wiltshire) was driven over for an uncoverted try but the Midlands swiftly cancelled it out when centre Oliver Grove (Rugby School, Worcester and Warwickshire) scored a superb opportunist try.
Grove, the younger brother of Worcester Warriors' former Scotland Under-19 centre Alex, had an excellent game and his powerful disagonal run to the line, where there appeared little on for the Midlands, sealed their victory.
The South West had the final say when right wing Christian Wade (RGS High Wycombe, London Wasps and Buckinghamshire) scored the try of the match when he collected the ball close to half-way and accelerated away fro a stunning individual score which fly-half Alex Stevenson (Bloxham School, Banbury and Oxfordshire) converted.
The game was marred by an injury to South West centre Duncan Peters (Kings School, Gloucester and Gloucestershire) who suffered suspected cruciate ligament damage in the first half. Peters was taken to hospital by ambulance with an injury that may have ended his chances of winning international honours this season.
The North were forced to reshuffle their selected squad for their opening game when wing Jonathan Kennedy (Wilmslow Sixth Form College) was forced to withdraw because of an ankle problem and Sam Kindred also missed out because of a bicep problem.
They added Oliver Hayes, who was not required by the South West, to their squad but the late selection problems did not prevent them recording a breathless victory.
The North were 17-3 up five minutes into the second half but they then came under the cosh from London who whittled away the lead. London took the lead for the first time when they went 20-17 up with just three minutes to go but they could not hang on for victory in a tense finale.
A missed penalty from North centre Mark Atkinson (St Ambrose, Sale Sharks and Cheshire) appeared to have given London a reprieve but full-back Jordan Davies (Denstone College, Eccles and Lancashire) snatched victory with the final move of the game when he latched on to a crossfield kick that bounced into his hands.
The North's opening try came from centre Andrew Forsyth (QEGS Wakefield, Leicester Tigers and Yorkshire) after a lovely handling move, but further pressure went unrewarded as the North failed to promising approiach work into points.
But the North were solid in defence and restricted London to just one penalty from fly-half Jake Sharp (Oaklands School, Saracens and Hertfordshire) in the first half.
The North appeared to have taken control of the game when wing James Wood (QEGS Wakefield and Yorkshire) was put free by a long pass and he scored in the corner on the stroke of half time, then number eight Oliver Stedman (Kings School, Tynemouth, Percy Park and Northumberland) drove over from close range soon after the restart.
But London rallied superbly and with two catch-and-drive tries from hooker Arthur Ellis (St Benedict's, Ealing, London Wasps and Middlesex sandwiching one from replacement scrum-half Matthew Keyte (Dulwich College, NEC Harlequins and Surrey) from a quickly-taken tapped penalty.
Sharp's conversion of Kete's try enabled London to nudge into the lead but Davies kept his wits about him to snatch victory for the North.
The teams return to Broadstreet for the second day of the festival on December 23 when the North and South West will meet at 11am with the Midlands playing London at 1pm.
The selectors will then name a provisional squad of a maximum of 30 who will be invited for training at Bromsgrove School from January 4 to 6.
Revised divisional squads will be selected for a third round of matches on December 30 when the Midlands play the North at Broadstreet (2pm) and London play the South West at Maidenhead (2pm). Players who missed the festival because of illness or injury will be given their opportunity to stake their claims for inclusion in the England training squad along with players the national selectors have asked to see play again.
England will play Scotland at Melrose on March 2 in a warm-up game to the AER Tournament which will be played in and around Treviso from March 14 to 23.