Cuppers rugby has become one of the most predictable competitions in Oxford sport. The engravers charged with applying each winner’s name on the trophy are probably in danger of contracting repetitive strain injuries from carving the names of Teddy Hall and Keble so often. The fact that many of the top teams in the college leagues add to their squads with several Blues players, means that for many other teams competing, a quarter final place is a huge achievement, a good showing in the plate more realistic. While this may all sound very pessimistic, looking down the list of potential favourites for this year does little to suggest that we have any reason to change our expectations.
Keble, who have dominated the college scene on all fronts in the last few years, will, as usual, consider themselves the number one seed in 2009. Although they had a hiccup in losing to Pembroke last term, the additions of Blues stalwarts such as McKercher and Ackroyd should make them too strong a prospect for almost every other team. In all, they boast four players from the Blues squad, with other reinforcements coming from the Greyhounds and U-21s. They will also be especially eager to avenge last years defeat in the final to Teddy Hall, and are unlikely to make the same mistakes as they did last year, when they left out a number of their first choice players. After Magdalen’s loss this week, Keble have once again ascended to their perch on top of the league table, a position they are now used to occupying. As they continue to grow in confidence, it will take a huge effort to bring the college rugby giants to their knees this time around.
Last years winning finalist, and historically the most successful team in Cuppers, Teddy Hall, would be ecstatic if they were able to repeat last years victory. They would usually be the team who Keble would be most wary of going into the competition, but an indifferent year for the normally consistent Hall culminated last week in a thorough drubbing by Keble. Looking likely to finish fourth in the league this term, they will have to pull something very special out of the bag if they are to give themselves a chance of progressing to the final. Although they will welcome back a number of university players, this may not be enough to bridge the gap between themselves and those top teams who are currently exhibiting better form.
In fact, if form itself were the acid test for a teams likely performance in Cuppers, then you would have to point towards Magdalen and Pembroke as the other two teams with the most convincing claim to the crown. Pembroke have built on their double promotion last year to establish themselves as one of the top sides, and go into this last week having only lost to Magdalen. They pushed Keble hard in the semi-finals in 2008, and will be looking to go one better this time around.
However, they will be without talismanic back Tim Catling, with the Varsity Match hero currently out of the country. In fact, Pembroke will only be able to count on one player returning from Blues 1st team duties, which may not prove enough in a competition where the amount of Blues players turning out for their college side often proves the difference. Magdalen however, although only having lost one match before this week, to St. Anne’s St John’s, they were on the end of a thorough beating at the hands of Christ Church on Tuesday. Their inability to field a competent back-line for an important league game is an ominous sign, and they’ll hope the same thing doesn’t happen when they come up against better opposition.
Although, as is usually the case, the teams in the top division will dominate most peoples predictions for favourites, there are two teams outside the highest echelon of college rugby that will make for very interesting prospects. Univ have had a mixed season, and will need to put in a good performance this week to avoid relegation to the third division. However, their starting XV will most likely be unrecognisable next week, as they add to their squad will a whole raft of university players. Into their backs come Jon Burnett and Luke Fenwick from the Blues’ squad, whilst this years U-21s side contained no less than seven Univ players, many of them in the pack. Although no longer able to rely on the electric pace of Boto at outside centre, the strength throughout the team which they will experience in Cuppers will make them the dark horse of the competition and definitely one which the other teams will be looking over their shoulders for. Depending on the draw they receive, I’d predict them to reach the final.
Although Univ may be the most likely team outside Div 1 to launch an assault, as their Cuppers credentials have been proven in previous years, the most surprising contender for this years tournament should be Worcester. They will be something of an unknown quantity this time around, and anyone who has played them this season would find it astonishing that they are even being mentioned alongside the other teams in this article. They have been utterly woeful in the league this year, and face the ignominy of being relegated to the fourth division if they fail to get a result against New this Thursday. For a team that was playing its rugby in the second division at the beginning of the year, that would be a spectacular fall from grace.
However, if their league side are not quite up to scratch, the recruits which they should be getting in the next few weeks are of a slightly higher calibre. From the Blues squad they can expect to add four players to their pack. This would make a huge difference for any team, and will turn them into a formidable forward unit.
But it is the man who could be pulling on the number two jersey for them that will provoke most interest. It would be quite a sight to see Anton Oliver, capped 57 times by New Zealand, packing down against another College side. Most teams will be praying that they won’t have to face this prospect, and although their backs will probably not be strong enough for them to reach the semis, the damage which could be done in the early rounds could be quite dangerous.
I would advise any captain, if they found out they were playing a Worcester front row including Oliver and Dan Rosen, another hooker who has features in the Blues squad this year, to claim a lack of front row players and go straight to uncontested scrums. Not only would it stop embarrassment at set piece time, and isolate Worcester’s most potent weapon, but it may also avoid serious injury, especially for the rather less experienced front rows in college rugby.
But despite all this talk of upset and unlikely victors, it is probable, in this most consistent of tournaments, that the silverware hoarders of Keble will once again have their day. Although it would be nice for the engravers if they could have some variety in their work at this time of year, it looks like we’ll have to wait until next year. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong this time.