25/01/16: The qualifying rounds for the 2016 EFA Trophy took place at Eton on Sunday with the damp and slippery courts almost giving Fives a bad name and the ten teams livin’ on a prayer as they tried to cope with conditions and reach the semi-finals.
The same four teams have made it through to the last four in both of the last two years, but changes were afoot this time round; defending champions Aldenham were unable to raise a side, serial qualifiers the Old Wulfrunians were missing a couple of key personnel, the Old Ipswichians were back with their strongest line-up for a long time and old favourites the Monday Knights and North Oxford were back in the mix and dreaming of glory.
The students of Oxford University have performed well in recent years and once again looked strong on paper; they got off to a ropy start in Group A, however, struggling to cope with the conditions unlike their canny opponents the Monday Knights. Moving around the court is tricky in the wet; it may be that the more experienced Monday Knights were less worried about excessive movement than their younger opponents. Whatever the cause, it was the likes of Oxford captain Jack Flowers and OE Sam Oppenheimer who were shaking their heads in despair as they went down to a 4-2 defeat in the first round, a result which certainly put a cat among the pigeons and turned the group into a tight battle right from the off. North Oxford’s B team performed with credit but were unable to make much of an impression and the Wulfrunians were immediately on the back foot after defeats at the hands of the Ipswichians andt he Monday Knights, although they were always a threat at first pair in particular with Sid Simmons repeatedly demonstrating his quality. The Ipswichians, under the strong leadership of Tim Gregory, were right in the mix from the start, although a 4-2 defeat to the University in the penultimate round left them with some work to do, as well as putting the Oxford boys right back in the hunt. The final round would be crucial – the Ipswichians took on the Monday Knights, needing a 4-2 result or better to be sure of qualification. Oxford University took on the Wulfrunians, knowing that they needed at least a 4-2 and probably better to be sure of their place in the semis. In a thrilling 45 minute passage of play, all three teams had their chances to qualify and with just the final game of the second pair between the Knights and the OIs to finish, a three way tie on 17 points looked on the cards. The OI second pair had won the first game 12-11 and were 9-8 up in the second; right at the last, though, the Monday Knights came through to take the game 12-10, avoiding the three way tie, claiming the group and leaving the luckless Ipswichians to miss out by a point as Oxford got the 5-1 result they needed to finish in second place.
Group B was a bit more straightforward with perennial tournament favourites the Old Salopians dominating from the start. North Oxford’s A team were not far behind, dropping only a couple of points to Cambridge University before taking on the Salopians in the group decider in the final round. The Shropshire side had the edge in that contest, despite Fergus Imrie and Chris Lloyd inflicting their only defeat of the day right at the end of proceedings. Cambridge and Berkhamsted fought it out for third and fourth, with the Light Blues coming out on top in that particular battle; Berkhamsted were a little unlucky in that fixture as it came straight after a tough match for the Berkhamsted side against the Lancing Lionhearts, which featured possibly the match of the day as Lancing’s pair of uberveteran Nigel Cox and “youngster” Colin Turnbull pushed Berkhamsted’s own veterans Mark Blundell and Richard Dennis all the way, eventually succumbing 10-12, 10-12 and sending all four players off for a lengthy lie-down.
The EFA Trophy qualifiers are always a celebration of everything that is good in Fives, with players of all ages (from 16-70) taking part in close, fun games that are all played in the right spirit. This year – despite the tricky conditions – was no exception and my thanks go to everyone who helped raise teams and got so many players along to Eton to take part. Thanks, too, to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament.
The semi-finals and final will take place at Eton on Sunday February 28th and will feature the following matches:
Old Salopians v Oxford University
Monday Knights v North Oxford