Between set talk

Double Runners Up at the U21s

In Match Reports by Riki Houlden, with excerpts from Gareth Hoskins' reportLeave a Comment

The 2016 Under 21 Tournament took place at Eton on Sunday 31st January and was an absolute cracker, with heroes everywhere. The men’s tournament featured the usual mixture of top quality schoolboy players and some of the best university pairs and recent school leavers, including two pairs from Cambridge:

  1. Riki Houlden + Alistair Stewart
  2. Ben Merrett + Nathan Turnbull

The morning group stages brought an unpleasant surprise to the two Cambridge pairs as they found themselves in the same group. Riki and Alistair saw their way past a strong Highgate school pair and their Cambridge contemporaries before going on to face Old Salopians Guy Williams and Samson Yick. Alistair, playing as Cambridge 1 in a national tournament for the first time (Riki’s usual Cambridge partner Tony Barker now a year too old for this competition), rose to the occasion and produced the best fives of his life both in this battle and throughout the rest of the day. The Cam pair were always even or just a few points ahead, and managed to maintain this until the very end of an extremely long one-set match, edging the group decider 15-13. A brilliant result for Alistair, and revenge for Riki as he had lost to Yick in the SFs of the Universities Tournament in October.

Ben and Nathan unfortunately lost the deciding match for the last QF place in the group when, technically, they were probably the better pair. Nathan was reportedly ‘Highgated’ by the schoolboys, unable to cope with the lack of etiquette from the opposing pair that the game demands.

Ben and Nathan went on to play in the Plate Competition, comfortably making their way past other school pairs after Ben gave a detailed “how to beat Highgate schoolboys” tactical talk, being skilled at getting on people’s nerves himself. However, they were unfortunately forced to retire in a winnable Final as Ben began to suffer from pain in his elbow and ankle. A respectable result and many lessons learnt on mind games in a sport without referees.


A poorly(/perfectly) timed photo – the other 3 players on court look horrified as Nathan morphs into an unnatural form

In the QFs, Houlden and Stewart saw off the challenge of Highgate 1st pair Holdsworth and Light 15-8, taking them into a semi-final against Old Aldenhamian Andrew Rennie and the current highest-ranked school player Tom Gallagher.

Rennie and Gallagher were always behind in the first game, the Cambridge pair’s speed and accuracy into the buttress forcing mistakes from their opponents. Having lost the first game, Rennie adopted a more unorthodox tactical approach at the start of the second. Andrew was moving forward from the back court to take a big swing at a waist high mid-court ball; at exactly the same time, Alistair was on the top step, turning round to see what was happening behind him and then get back into position. The result was inevitable, the ball suddenly irrelevant as the Rennie glove swung into the Stewart “midriff” in a scene reminiscent of the famous David “Bumble” Lloyd / Jeff Thomson incident in the 1974-75 Ashes. With Stewart writhing in agony on the floor of the court and everyone else trying very hard not to laugh too loudly, a ten minute hiatus was required. Once proceedings got underway again it was clear that Rennie’s below the belt tactics hadn’t worked as Houlden and Stewart picked up where they had left off to win the second game 12-2 and claim their spot in the final.

The Rennie

The new Fives move now known as “The Rennie”

The final was an intriguing match-up with implications beyond the destiny of the U21 trophy; Houlden and Barker are potential opponents for Cobb and Piggot in the Varsity Match in a few weeks time, so a win, or possibly even a narrow defeat, could score some important psychological points for Cambridge ahead of that encounter. The Light Blue pair certainly warmed to their task in the first game, with Stewart – the most untried of the four players at this level – stepping up impressively and combining well with his Cambridge captain Houlden. The Westminster pair seemed to be a bit more sprightly at the end of a gruelling day and their speed around the court, excellent returning and accurate groundstrokes kept Cobb and Piggot under pressure and behind on the scoreboard for the majority of the first game. It took a mixture of fight, a couple of mini-runs of points, one or two badly timed unforced errors from the Cambridge pair and a little bit of luck for Cobb and Piggot to sneak the first game 13-12 and this turned out to be crucial. The Cambridge pair continued to play well, but a little bit of their self-belief had gone with the loss of the first game and the second game was snatched away 12-6.

Between set talk

Disappointment at losing the first game 13-12

Alistair, currently 3rd pair for Cambridge, should hold his head high as he displayed some magnificent fives throughout the day. To come Runner Up in the U21s National Championships, losing only against the Oxford 1st pair and 2014 Schools National Champions Cobb and Piggot, is a fantastic result and hugely reassuring for the strength of Cambridge Eton fives in years to come.

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