"En garde" for fencing Blues

On Saturday 13th February, in the Examination schools, the Dark Blues lined up against the Powder Blues in the 103rd Fencing Varsity Match. Earlier in the day, Oxford’s Women Blues had valiantly fallen to the Tabs, adding to the weight of expectation on the Oxford Men. Cambridge probably had to be considered favourites, being unbeaten since March 2008, but the last time these two teams had met, the Light Blues only triumphed on the final hit. Before the fencing began, the National Anthem rang out, reminding fencers and spectators alike of the importance of the occasion.

The match began with sabre, traditionally Cambridge’s strongest weapon. However, under the guidance of this year’s captain Alex Crutchett (Balliol), Oxford sabre fencing has undergone a mini-Renaissance. Competing alongside Crutchett were Mike Coombes (Exeter), Dom Kerr (Magdalen), and Oxford’s American import Matt Kolasa (Kellogg). All produced some excellent fencing, with captain Crutchett setting the standard with an opening 5-1 victory against Felix Wood. Unfortunately, however, the Oxford sabreurs also became frustrated by differences of opinion with the referee. Consequently, they failed to build on this early lead, going into the final sabre bout trailing 40-38.

In this bout, Alex Crutchett faced his elder brother, Anthony. Alex took the opportunity to give Anthony a few reasons to regret his choice of university, with some excellent hits. However, Anthony is a veteran of three previous Varsity matches, and did enough for the Cambridge sabre team to edge a 45-43 victory.

Oxford had hoped to establish a morale-boosting lead in the sabre. Instead, they went into the foil 2 hits down. Cambridge won the foil relatively easily in both the BUCS league matches this season, and so a special performance was needed from the Oxford foil team. In particular, hopes centred on top Dark Blue foilist, Mat ‘Ginger Ninja’ Shearman (Lincoln). Shearman did not disappoint, with his performances involving a lot of fist pumping and shouting. He upset the Tabs’ mentality with his exuberance, aided by some deftly executed attacks.

Alongside Shearman, the old man of the team, Matt Baker (Exeter) was also fencing foil. An epeeist by trade, he had been humiliated 9-2 by Cambridge’s Dan Summerbell earlier in the season. However, he was determined not to let Cambridge’s abrasive foil leader get the better of him again. Wearing a foil jacket from days when Baker was undoubtedly slimmer, he managed to manoeuvre around Summerbell and the other Tab foilists, and bemused them by scoring some fine hits. The hard work of the fight – and celebrating the hits he was scoring – left Baker dizzy and in need of an extended breather.

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Oxford had also planned to use American sabreur Matt Kolasa in the foil. However, Oxford captain Alex Crutchett substituted himself, unable to face being idle during a Tab-bashing. He showed he had the talent to match his bravado. The speed of his footwork and bladework rattled the Cambridge foil team, and led to some important points being scored.

Despite these heroic efforts, the Oxford foilists still fell behind to a well-drilled Cambridge team. Nevertheless, the 45-33 scoreline was far tighter than the Tabs would have expected, and gave a glimmer of hope to the Oxford team.

The final weapon, epee, is notoriously hard to chase hits in. Many Dark Blues’ supporters felt that victory was beyond Oxford’s grasp, as they needed to win by 15 points. But the naysayers had not counted on the determination of the Oxford epeeists. In particular, they were unprepared for the magnificent performance of Luxembourger Phil Birget (St Peters). In what could well be Luxembourg’s greatest ever military success, Birget butchered the Tabs with no mercy.

Opening the epee was Matt Baker, back to fencing his weapon of choice. Baker was 1-0 up before he even fenced, as Cambridge received a red card for faulty equipment. Baker then got the crowd pumped, beating his French opponent Valentin Dalibard 5-2. Next to step up for the Dark Blues was the towering 2 metre figure of Nick Wareham (Univ). Wareham fenced sensibly to hold Phil West to 4-4. The Tabs then received another red card for further faulty equipment, before Birget the Butcher destroyed his first opponent Gasparetti 5-0, leaving the score at 15-6.

Inside the Dark Blue camp there was a feeling that something special might be about to happen. Oxford had planned to use Rupert Paines (Regent’s Park) for Wareham’s remaining epee bouts. But, inspired by Wareham’s performance in the first bout, and aware that the Cambridge’s Dalibard struggled with fencing left-handers, Paines suggested Wareham stay on for the next fight. Baker agreed with this admirable display of humility, and backed Wareham to fight again. Wareham went on to fence a solid bout against Dalibard, winning 5-4. Baker then returned to fence Anthony Crutchett and put the crowd to sleep with a 2-1 victory leaving the score at 22-11.

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While the crowd might have been uncertain at what was going on, Oxford’s strategic plan was taking shape. The masterpiece was unveiled when Birget ‘the Butcher’ returned to the piste. He carved strips off the Tab hulk at will, attacking quickly and with determination. He was jumping for joy, indicating to the crowd where he had hit his opponent.

When Birget had sated his appetite, Paines came on to fence Anthony Crutchett. Never has a 0-0 draw been executed with such control, patience, and overall skill. It is not easy to hold a fencer off, and Paines did so with inspiring calm. A devastating airhorn blast from Baker let the Cambridge team know that holding Crutchett to nothing was a victory for the Oxford team. Why? Because Birget the Butcher had one last fight. Given space to score even more points, Birget went in and destroyed the Tabs’ last hope, Dalibard. As the noise from the crowd increased in intensity, the Butcher revelled in the massacre. Every hit made an Oxford victory seem more and more inevitable.

The final bout saw Baker lining up against Phil West. The crowd seemed confident in Baker’s ability, possibly remembering how he had clawed back 6 hits for victory two years ago. However, he himself was less certain, being all too aware of his faltering ability to focus. Still, as chants of “BAKER! BAKER! BAKER!” filled the Examination Schools, Baker began to sense the abject terror that was filling his opponent, and knew victory was in sight. He held it together and wrapped up a 45-25 epee victory. Oxford had won the Varsity Match again, and the deafening roar of a packed Exam Schools sent the Tabs on their way. They had learnt to their cost that, to Dark Blue fencers, the Examination Schools is hallowed ground.