Click on the thumbnail to see photos from the weekend
In recent years it has often been said that the 3rd round of the FA Cup has rather lost its lustre and is no longer one of the standout weekends in the sporting calendar. Many reasons have been put forward for this decline, from the tightening of the Premier League's soulless corporate grip on the game to the fielding of weakened teams to the disappearance of boggy January mudbath pitches and John Motson's fabled sheepskin coat. Happily, however, the first weekend in January hosts another legendary sporting occasion, one that gets better and better every year - which is more than can be said for many of its participants - and which is ready and waiting to fill the New Year void in the British sporting consciousness. Not showing its age and past its best like the Cup (apart from maybe Mike Fenn), nor garish and brash like the darts at Ally Pally (imagine Bunyan doing a darts-style walk-on - the mind boggles*) the Ipswich Tournament for the Graves Cup stands ready and waiting to be discovered as the standout national post-Christmas sports event.
The 2015 edition certainly didn't disappoint. The joy of the Graves Cup for those who have been playing in it for a long time is that it is the perfect combination of firmly rooted and immovable traditions - the "flexible" nature of the format/draw, the consumption of prodigious quantities of port at the Saturday night dinner and the not unrelated gentleness of the Sunday morning matches - and forward-looking evolution as new generations of Ipswichians find themselves turning from bemused first-time onlookers to dedicated devotees of said traditions in the space of 48 hours. Outsiders are also welcomed into the cult of the Graves Cup and they, too, tend to find themselves inexorably drawn to return again and again.
One of the features of the tournament in recent seasons has been the strength of the school players. Peter Boughton and Tony Stubbs - Ipswich School's answer to Brian Clough and Peter Taylor - have worked wonders over the past few years and Ipswich School Fives is currently in the middle of a golden age comparable to the original Fenn, Boughton, Caudle, Collett and Woolfires era, although that can't have been that golden as that bunch only played in black and white. Suffice to say that once again in stark contrast to the FA Cup, the standard of the current school players means that there are no easy games in the Graves Cup and anyone wanting to get their name on the trophy, or one bit of it in its current state until Graves dips into his pocket for a new one, has to do it the hard way.
The group stages this year produced a series of humdingers, with every pair in with a shout and pushing hard for a quarter-final place. Group A was the closest with five pairs playing each other in games to 15 and every single match bar one producing double figure scores from both pairs. It was so close that rather than producing anything as remotely sensible as a final group table, the results were used in the best tournament tradition as a basis for later negotiation as to who had qualified for what. In the end Sunday availability was the deciding factor in seeing Nick Bunyan & Sam Clark, Seb Cooley & Will Froggatt and Ian Mitchell & Pete Baxter through to the last eight.
Group B was slightly more clear cut, with the OI old guard of Steve Burnell (partnering Ralph Morgan) and Tim Gregory (alongside OI Asian number one Oli Watts) putting the current OI first pair of Will Gibbons and David Leach firmly in their place, in this case the Plate. On a positive note, Will did manage to avoid maiming his partner for the second successive tournament and next year will be going for a hat-trick on which you could have got pretty long odds up until quite recently.
Group C came down to a battle of the mixed pairs as Peter Boughton & Karen Hird and Gareth Hoskins & Eloise Carter carried unbeaten records through the rounds before Peter and Karen won an epic group decider 12-10. Play was slightly disrupted by an incident involving Piers Prior, a mishit shot and a subsequently dangling light fitting but thankfully some handy nearby scaffolding and some parachute cord that Nick Bunyan just happened to have in the boot of his car (don't ask) meant that the show could go on. Alex Yusaf & Dmitri Seymour-Howell pipped Tim Fletcher & Mandie Barnes for the final qualifying slot before the organiser, aided by the mathematical genius of Cooley and the toss of a coin (more than once, in fact) came up with a quarter-final draw that seemed reasonable enough to all concerned.
The Saturday evening dinner was a highlight, as ever, with players, partners and guests including uberveteran Nigel Cox, with wife Jennifer in tow to ensure that he didn't disrupt his recovery from a recent back operation by giving in to temptation and donning the gloves, Ann Shortland-Jones, OI legends John Caudle and Simon Woolfries and OI President Mike Fenn, warming up for his hotly anticipated speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the OI Fives club in 2016. Book your tickets now. Caudle's presence ensured that the great 2014 port fiasco was avoided this time round but otherwise this year's dinner bordered on the civilsed at times, with Watts's hair remaining cheese free and the only controversial note coming, predictably, from Bunyan who managed to break a chair - apparently he "sat down at the wrong angle"...
The Sunday morning recovery took place at the Greyhound with a full round of fried breakfasts and creaking bodies were dragged back on court for the quarter-finals. Giant of the game Seb Cooley acquired a new partner in Isaac Weaver and they decided to play best of three against Tim Gregory and Oli Watts, coming from behind to make it into the last four. Everyone else played one game to 15: Burnell and Morgan saw off the spirited challenge of Hoskins and the highly promising Eloise Carter 15-12, Boughton and Hird looked in ominous form as they cruised past Mitchell & the still comatose Baxter and Bunyan & Clark made short work of Yusaf & Seymour-Howell.
Burnell and Morgan continued to impress as they beat Bunyan and Clark 2-0 in the semis, withstanding a spirited second game comeback, and the evergreen Boughton - winner of the inaugural Graves Cup back in 1979 - combined with ladies champion Hird to defeat Cooley and Weaver in a titanic battle, coming from behind to win 11-14, 15-11, 12-10.
In the meantime, Gibbons had saved some face by winning the Plate A Final with Will Carron against Fletcher and Barnes and Gregory and Watts had powered through the field to win Plate B in impressive style. All this, of course, was in the absence this year of plate specialist Tony Stubbs, who was busy testing out new minibus routes to Eton and Shrewsbury and therefore unable to play.
Only the (fool)hardy braved the freezing conditions and lashing rain to watch the final, but they were rewarded with an absolute classic. With the fog rolling in, although it could just have been the steam appearing off Burnell, the final was a see saw encounter, with both pairs enjoying spells of dominance without either of them being able to make a decisive move until the very end of the fifth game. The first two games were shared, and with Boughton and Hird having taken the second 14-12 and leading 8-4 in the third, the match seemed theirs for the taking. In the first key phase of the match, however, Steve and Ralph turned the tide and turned 4-8 into 12-8 and a 2-1 lead. Peter and Karen regrouped well in the fourth, winning the set piece battle and taking it 12-6 to level at 2-2. They then turned a 1-6 fifth game deficit into 5-6, but in the second key phase of the match missed chances to move into a potentially decisive lead, and once Burnell and Morgan got back on the scoreboard, the self-belief rushed back into their game and they finished in a hurry to claim Burnell's second title, Morgan's first, deny Boughton a fifth win in the competition and condemn Hird to a second successive defeat in the final.
Thanks as always go to all who took part and made it such a great weekend, to Peter Boughton for his irreplacable organisational skills and to Stubbsy for driving the minibus, even though it wasn't required for this one. We're all looking forward to seeing his creative new route to Shrewsbury for the Northern this year, so it won't have been a wasted weekend.
One final thought: as Ipswich claimed a creditable 1-1 cup draw at Southampton on Sunday to bring the Saints back to fortress Portman Road, at least the Graves Cup doesn't have replays and we can all now wait until January 2016 for the next one.
*I have visions of "Vindaloo" by Fat Les, but it's not something anyone should spend too much time thinking about if they wish to retain their sanity
S.Cooley & I.Weaver beat T.Gregory & O.Watts 2-1 (6-12, 12-7, 14-11)
P.Boughton & K.Hird beat I.Mitchell & P.Baxter 15-8
N.Bunyan & S.Clark beat A.Yusaf & D.Seymour-Howell 15-6
S.Burnell & R.Morgan beat G.Hoskins & E.Carter 15-12
P.Boughton & K.Hird beat S.Cooley & I.Weaver 2-1 (11-14, 15-11, 12-10)
S.Burnell & R.Morgan beat N.Bunyan & S.Clark 2-0 (12-4, 12-11)
S.Burnell & R.Morgan beat P.Boughton & K.Hird 3-2 (12-9, 12-14, 12-8, 8-12, 12-6)
W.Gibbons & W.Carron beat Tim Fletcher & M.Barnes 2-1 (12-7, 9-12, 12-8)
Plate B (Round Robin):
T.Gregory & O.Watts