Oxford fall short at Twickenham

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With the first of four tries after only three minutes, two drop goals and a nail-bitingly close finish, the 126th Varsity Match was a highly entertaining game which, right until the final whistle, could have gone either way. In the end it was the resilience of the Light Blue forwards and staunch defending that gave Cambridge the edge, seeing them bash through to their 60th Varsity win. Just seconds after kick-off, Cambridge turned the ball over and a sharp offload from the tackle allowed them to gain momentum. When the Oxford winger Tom Tombleson was bundled into touch after gathering a kick, a 5m lineout put the Light Blues in a very strong attacking position with only 3 minutes on the clock. As had been predicted, the Cambridge pack kept it tight with a fierce drive for the line and Jon Dawson, former Harlequins and Wasps hooker, grounded the ball. A good strike from the Cambridge fly-half fell just short of the cross-bar. With a 5-point deficit after just 3 minutes, pre-match favourites Oxford would have to strike back fast to gain some momentum after conceding a soft try. When a great incisive run by their winger soon brought Cambridge up into Oxford’s half again, Oxford managed to settle themselves and turned the ball over. But a penalty against Oxford for offside allowed the Tabs to put 3 more points on the board. After the Dark Blues won a lineout, it was their captain, former Wallaby Joe Roff, who brought his team off the back foot in this, his last ever competitive game. Some silky running into the opposition’s 22m gave the Oxford forwards a chance to finally made their mark, grinding away to push closer to the line. The ball came out to McMahon in the pocket, who slotted a drop goal coolly between the posts to bring the Oxonians back into the game.The three points gave the Dark Blues the lift they needed, and after Cambridge’s Murray kicked the ball out on the full, Oxford demonstrated a solid attacking lineout. The ball was handled well through the backs and McMahon put Boto in space on a previously unexploited blindside. Cutting inside towards the line and stepping a missed interception by Cambridge’s Broadfoot, Boto offloaded to Chris Mahony who rolled with the tackle over the try line to sink the ball into the turf. McMahon’s conversion took Oxford into the lead 10-8 with ten minutes remaining in the first half. Unfortunately, Mahoney’s run also resulted in an ankle injury so Gregory came on at centre and Roff moved back to 15, a change that would have a significant impact on the game. Just minutes after Oxford’s first foray on the try line, Roff cut a line past Tombleson on the inside with space enough to see Dark Blue spectators jump to their feet in anticipation. However, fumbling the ball in what was surely a try-scoring opportunity, the half-time whistle blew with the score still at 10-8 to Oxford. After the break, Cowie and Davis replaced Rosen and Allusen in the front row. More kicking began the second half, with the ball flying back and forth as it had in the early stages of the match. Once again taking control, Roff tried an up-andunder which resulted in a penalty for Oxford. McMahon stepped up to the occasion to seal the three points, taking the score to 13-8. When an injury to Cambridge’s flyhalf forced a reorganisation in the Light Blue backs, Oxford seemed to have the run of play, with solid work from the pack keeping the momentum moving forward. Re-playing a tactic that had worked in the first half, McMahon dropped a second goal (the third player to do so in the history of the Varsity match) and propelled his team to an 8-point lead. Matthews then replaced Lutton to complete a new front row for the Dark Blues. Penalised for being off their feet, with 20 minutes left Oxford found themselves once more defending a 5m lineout. Like an action replay of the beginning of the match, the Cambridge forwards proved their strength, remaining on their feet to charge over the line. A successful conversion meant that the rivals were one point apart, and a bout of tussling after the whistle made the tension palpable. Reinvigorated by the score, Cambridge continued to use the strength of the rolling maul and made fast yards. After an impressive passage of play the ball was passed through the backs until a change of direction when the number 8 charged through Oxford’s defence to ground the ball once more. Duly converted, Oxford would need to respond quickly, with Cambridge in the lead 23-15 and the clock running down. Having had difficulty making a mark on the game since his move to full-back, Roff found himself knocked to the ground after a kick in an overzealous late tackle by his opposite number. Referee Tony Spreadbury awarded Oxford a penalty from where the ball landed, and it was the Dark Blues’ turn to attack the 5m lineout. However, there was miscommunication and messy ball, and unlike the Light Blue forwards, Oxford did not stay on their feet. The last five minutes of the match were played in the Cambridge half, tantalisingly close to the line, but Cambridge’s defence sessions with Wasps coach Saun Edwards seemed to have paid off. In their very last campaign for victory, with 50 seconds on the clock and the ball a metre from the line, the Oxford forwards bashed through player after player with dogged determination, fighting for inches. When the ball came out into the backs, players were lining up in space to score, but with no margin for error this was not Oxford’s day. The pass did not link up; the stadium erupted into a multitude of Light Blue cheers. Despite a significantly more successful season than their rivals, a captain with a World Cup win under his belt, and an 8-point lead after 50 minutes, for the third successive year Varsity victory has eluded the Oxford Blues. After the match the Oxford players were ready to commend Cambridge’s defensive effort in the final minutes of the game, which was by all accounts, outstanding. That the match was so close will surely be no consolation for the players, but for those watching it was testament to the prestige and competitive spirit of this unique fixture.by Stephanie Hardwick

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