Success for black-belt Blues

Saturday the twenty-seventh of February in Oxford Town Hall held host to a clash of titanic forces, as four teams from Oxford and four from Cambridge faced each other off in the eightieth annual Varsity Judo match. Following a disappointing overall loss to Cambridge last year, Oxford University Judo Club, the collective name for the men’s, women’s and city teams, arrived at the Town Hall fully prepared. After weeks of rigorous training, they had no mind to take any prisoners. OUJC President Andrew ‘Bone-Quaker’ Stewart admitted that there were no guaranteed wins, as the Town Hall began to fill with spectators and the teams started to warm-up. Stewart said, ‘Our women’s team is incredibly strong, and our men’s teams are much stronger than last year, but I was less sure about the city team because I knew Cambridge would be fielding a few international-standard players.’
Judo is an Olympic sport which involves throwing, hold downs, locks and strangles and has always had a strong body of participants, or ‘Judoka,’ at both Universities. This resulted in an unprecedented tie between the Men’s blues teams in 2009 which Oxford lost by a hair’s breadth in a rematch. This year, the atmosphere in the Town Hall reflected the strong support given to the Oxford teams on their home turf; Stewart noted that ‘every Oxford win earned us a huge roar from the crowd.’ This surge of adrenalin echoing from the players into their supporters suggested that this year, Oxford were firmly focused on bringing all four team trophies back to their Dojo at Iffley Road.
A minor delay due to a Cambridge coach malfunction resulted in an impromptu display of Judo techniques by city player Henry Winney and female coach and third Dan Carol Doherty, generating a fever pitch level of excitement in the crowd for the fighting to begin. The first contests of the day were Oxford and Cambridge’s city teams, each consisting of seven men and one woman, fighting in order from the heaviest to the lightest player. Oxford’s city captain was their talented female competitor, England squad member Jordan Doherty. An extremely close round of contests, many lasting the full five minutes of the match, saw Oxford down six-one as the last contest between the teams began. Despite some impressive performances, from Oxford’s ‘man of the match’ Henry Winney against a strong French International player, and a confident win from first Dan Luis Poyatas, Captain Jordan Doherty’s well-executed arm lock against a larger female opponent was not in time to clinch the City trophy that the team fought so hard for.
However, the high standard of Judo exhibited by both teams set a precedent for the rest of the matches, as Oxford Judo coaches Chris and Carol Doherty focused their attention on the three remaining teams. The men’s B teams then took to the mat area, determined to see the trophy back in Oxford after a crushing one-seven loss to Cambridge the previous year. Captained by James Fowler of St Catherine’s College, and consisting of seven players, the team ranged in ability, from experienced competitors to those who had taken up Judo only in the last year. Skillful fighting led to an impressive five-three win for the Oxford team, including some excellent throws by Oxford players Frank Curry and Nick Rounthwaite.
The men’s B team barely had a minute to celebrate their success before Oxford and Cambridge’s Women’s Blues teams were approaching the contest area. Women’s captain Karen Kruska, a first Dan, said that she was ‘overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the town hall’ as her team prepared to fight. On the eightieth anniversary of an event that has always demonstrated a great standard of Judo, the Women’s team were the strongest many people had ever seen them, as the five-player team included two first Dan (black belts), a first Kyu (brown belt), and two second Dan players, one of whom was Becky Bayliss, former OUJC President and Commonwealth bronze medalist.
The team stormed through their fights, winning quickly and decisively by ‘ippon’ or ‘full score,’ surrendering only one loss to their Cambridge opposition. Cambridge’s Women’s captain was thrown in six seconds, and the President of Cambridge Judo, Catharina Casper, lost to Bayliss for the third year in a row. The support for the team was extremely strong, as the players celebrated the ninth consecutive year the Women’s trophy would be on display at Iffley Road. Kruska added, ‘I was confident that my team would win at every stage of the competition, but I still felt very proud,’ also commending coaches Chris and Carol Doherty for all their hard work and expertise.
The earlier loss of Oxford’s city team meant that as the final team contest of the day approached, Cambridge still had the opportunity to create an overall draw. OUJC President Stewart, competing in the eight-player strong Men’s Blues team, described the importance of winning ‘in front of such a large home crowd’ after the close final the previous year, a sentiment echoed by the Men’s Blues Captain Justin Gregory. With five black belts on the team, there was still no guarantee of an Oxford win. Strong performances from the two heaviest players on the team got Oxford off to a good start, but some equally strong Cambridge players, and close fights, meant that for the second year in a row, the two teams were left with a four-four draw, and the necessity of a rematch.
Stewart described the ‘nail biting finale,’ which had every spectator and player in the hall up on their feet and screaming, as three of each eight-player team faced each other off in the deciding contests of the event. Brad ‘The Crusher’ Joyce, Ifor ‘Prince of Wales’ Capel, and Vitek ‘The Barbarian’ Sipal were selected to fight for their team. Joyce provided Oxford with another resounding victory, despite not being as highly graded as some of his teammates, inspiring confidence that this year’s final would go differently to the last. Capel, a second Dan and former President of the club took his strong opponent the full five-minute match distance, resulting in another adrenalin-fuelled win for Oxford, and an overall win for the team. Sipal fought strongly, coming back to win against the opponent he had originally lost to, giving Oxford not simply the two-one victory they needed but the three-nil victory they wanted.
As the Oxford teams began to revel in their three-one overall victory, Stewart ‘felt relieved’ and admitted that seeing the teams fight so well ‘made all the hard work worthwhile.’ However, the teams have no time to lose in celebrating: they plan to step up their training, with minds focused firmly on the British University Championships in Sheffield on the thirteenth and fourteenth of March, at which they intend to continue their Varsity success.