Sport makes you do strange things. Why, for instance, did I find myself skidding down the High Street on a borrowed bike with no lights at 7 p.m. on a Monday night, drenched to the skin? I honestly couldn’t tell you what made me do it, but I could tell you that two hours later I was glad that I did. On a night when the rain for most of the match could only be described as torrential, Oxford lit up Iffley Road for 80 minutes when they crushed the Worcester Warriors 43-8. The Zurich Premiership outfit would have been expected to challenge the Blues, who so far are unbeaten this season. These men are paid to play rugby, and I imagine would not have enjoyed the experience of being turned over by a bunch of undergraduates and the odd All Black.
And indeed, from the start it looked as if the professionals would be too strong for the amateurs, as Worcester raced out of the blocks. A simple step by their fly-half broke the gain line and some powerful drives at the fringes bought them to the Oxford 22, before a cross kick in behind the Oxford backs found no one at home and was pounced upon by Tom Wheatcroft for the opening score. Despite Worcester missing the subsequent conversion it looked as if Oxford were in for a miserable night. However, almost immediately Oxford began exerting pressure at the other end of the field, being held up over the line before conceding a scrum. Although the move broke down, pressure from the scrum forced a charge down and Ross Swanson was quickest to react, plucking the ball out of the air and touching down. With the conversion putting Oxford up 7-5, the game suddenly had a very different complexion.
Oxford started dominating the breakdown, seemingly turning the Worcester forwards over at will. The Blues were further helped by the fact that Worcester were unable to secure any form of line-up ball, whilst their back three seemed to be involved in a competition as to who could make the most mistakes. It was unsurprisingly not long before Oxford pulled further ahead. This time the foundations were laid by the pack, who rumbled the ball into the Worcester 22 through four or five phases, before Brendan McKerchar, the Blues scrum half, darted down the blind side and offloaded impressively to young wing Will Browne, who finished in style.
With another successful conversion from Gregory, and the Blues pack controlling the ruck area, the only thing stopping them from establishing a strangle hold over the game was their persistent infringement. After Worcester spurned one kickable opportunity, they finally put some more points on the board, making the score 14-8. Although this put them within a score of the hosts, Oxford did not seem unduly troubled and immediately turned down the opportunity to reply when given a penalty.
‘Oxford lit up Iffley Road for 80 minutes’
The decision to go for the scrum was vindicated however, as once again Oxford’s forwards showed good ball retention skills before finally crashing over the line. As it neared half time the only saving grace for Worcester was that they seemed to have the ear of the referee, as he continually penalised Oxford at the breakdown. Thankfully, Worcester repaid his kindness by refusing to win any set piece ball whilst the backs seemed to forget how to catch. Despite the visitors’ inadequacies, when they did occasionally hang onto the ball they were met by a very organised and aggressive Oxford defence. With seconds remaining, Oxford once again camped themselves inside the Worcester 22, and the seemingly inevitable try came in the form of Richard Lutton barrelling over from short range. As Tom Gregory’s kick went sailing inexorably between the posts, the half came to an end, leaving Worcester to wonder how they had ever found themselves in this position. At 26-8, and with Oxford completely in the ascendancy, it looked as if the result was now merely a forgone conclusion. Both teams seemed to think this was the case as well, with the second half becoming more of a subdued affair. After a mistake by the Worcester winger under a high ball, Browne dropped on the ball for his second try of the night.
‘A solid victory quickly turned into a rout’
Oxford now seemed content to dictate the pace of the game, giving most of the bench a run out. The wholesale changes disrupted the flow of the game somewhat, especially when the impressive Ross Swanson made way, whose quality passing had giving the backs a real sense of pace all night. One of the Blues substitutes determined prove his worth was Simon Ackroyd, who was intent on making an impression on the ribs of the Worcester players. The Keble flanker put in a number of crunching hits, and he seemed determined to try and mark.
What seemed like a solid victory quickly turned into a rout in the final ten minutes, with both Tom Gregory and Tim Catling both crossing to complete Worcester’s humiliation. Catling, whose blistering speed had only been contained by Worcester due to the fact that he had had limited space all night, finally got the opening he craved for, and gladly raced over. As Oxford lost their inhibitions and started running from everywhere they started making a few mistakes, although Worcester still seemed unable to capitalise on any scraps they were given. When the final whistle blew, the result was comprehensive, Oxford’s victory complete. With the Varsity Match always looming ever larger on the horizon this was a very good result for the Blues, who continued their unblemished record. Although a long way off, this Oxford team look as if they have the makings of champions.