In the Oxbridge bubble, with its two distinct shades of blue, early December can mean only one thing. As the end of Michaelmas welcomes in the festive season, year on year it’s time for 25,000 revellers to make the pilgrimage to Twickenham; to rugby HQ. For Oxford and Cambridge, December means Varsity; a sharp contrast from the cloistered world of academia recently left behind.
For the 134th time, the Light Blues met the Dark Blues, on a damp and windswept winter afternoon. Before today’s encounter, Cambridge boasted 61 wins to Oxford’s 58. This year, West London was turned dark blue, as Oxford secured a record-breaking 6th consecutive victory, closing the gap to 61-59. And after a disappointing morning for the women’s Blues, suffering a 0-52 loss to Cambridge, the men had a score to settle.
The opening encounters were something of a stalemate; the most notable moment coming within the opening minute, as Oxford’s replacement captain Lamont was forced off the field through injury. It was 12 minutes before the deadlock was broken, with Oxford’s George Cullen sending a central penalty between the posts. In truth, this year’s encounter took time to ignite. In fact, the whole affair was some distance from the barnstorming rugby spectacle to which Twickenham played host this summer.
This is not to the discredit of the respective Blues’ sides, whose spirit, drive and determination was unquestionable amidst the blood and sweat that soaked the hallowed turf of HQ come the final whistle. Cambridge levelled through a Don Stevens penalty and, at half-time, the score remained 3-3.
Despite the low score, both teams were forced to spend significant periods of the half defending in their own 22, with Cambridge’s Stevens making a particularly crucial saving tackle on his own try-line and Oxford’s Cullen sending a penalty just wide. Generally though, the half was categorised as much by poor handling and good defence as it was any expansive offensive play.
Of course, despite the dearth of hair-raising action on the pitch, the Cambridge line-up provided a particular point of intrigue. In 1988, Rugby World Cup winning All Black David Kirk captained Oxford. More recently, in 2007, Australian Joe Roff became the latest in an extensive line of internationals to feature in the tie. Today, it was the turn of Jamie Roberts, Welsh international and British Lions star, to play his part in the prestigious tie.
Unfortunately for the Light Blues, the DPhil medical scientist was unable to exert any real influence upon proceedings in the opening exchanges. Having spoken in the press this week about his desire to lift the standards of those around him, it was Roberts himself who went largely unnoticed for significant periods of the first 40 minutes. In fact, the Welshman was withdrawn at half-time.
As the game drifted into its final stages, it was Cambridge in the ascendancy, as the Oxford back line was stretched into a number of saving tackles. With 20 minutes left, the Tabs were rewarded for their period of dominance, as Stevens kicked 3 points from the wide-left. Cambridge’s advantage should have been short-lived in what was one of the key moments of the second half, as a sustained period of free-flowing attack saw the ball reach an open full-back on the five-metre line.Â Unfortunately for the Dark Blues, he could only fumble the ball over the try-line and concede a knock-on.
When Cullen sent a central penalty over the posts to draw Oxford level, the mistake did not seem so costly. Seven minutes from time, a third success for Cullen sent Oxford into a 9-6 lead and, when he kicked another three points moments later, the six-point gap proved unassailable. Once Cambridge’s Simon Davies was sent to the sin bin with five minutes to play, much to the delight of the vocal Dark Blue faithful, Oxford’s victory was all but confirmed. For the triumphant Dark Blues, Piccadilly’s after-party will be a scene of buoyant celebration. For Cambridge, tonight will be tinged with disappointment and questions of what might have been.