On Thursday, the grandest stage of English rugby once again hosted a tight and compelling Varsity match: 30,000 partisan fans flocked to Twickenham for a game that fully lived up to its billing as ‘Grudgeby‘.

Oxford’s Dark Blues suffered an agonisingly narrow defeat, 31-27, at the hands of a dogged and determined Cambridge side. The standard of play was expectedly high, delivering rugby of real quality – only a few moments of individual brilliance and some poor second-half tackling decided the outcome.

The opening 30 minutes of the game were fraught with tension, and fear of giving an inch to the opposition seemed to stifle offensive creativity for both teams: turnovers, knock-ons and unforced errors prevailed all over the pitch, with neither side performing to their full capacity. Locked at 0-0, Oxford quickened the pace and drew first blood with a well-deserved penalty try: camped at the Cambridge line, the Dark Blues’ powerful pack shoved and barged its way forward – too many fouls from the Light Blues forced the umpire to signal for a 5-0 advantage; a conversion later, Oxford were on the scoreboard and in control at 7-0.

Suddenly, with 10 minutes remaining before the break, an attritional battle for field-position opened out into expansive and free-flowing phases of rugby. Cambridge sensed an opportunity, squandering one breakaway attack before hitting back with a try of their own: James Greenwood plunged over the line, cutting the deficit to 7-5. The kick went wide, and Oxford went in for half-time with a slender but justified 2 point lead.

The second half saw much greater quality in attack, with both sides producing some exciting passages of play. The ball was sweeping wide regularly and dangerously, and the Dark Blues were keen to get last year’s hat-trick scorer, winger Tim Caitling, into possession. However, they were able to tack on only 3 points, and Cambridge soon took their first lead of the day, crashing through the weakening barrier of Oxford’s defensive line. Ahead 12-10, the Light Blues brimmed with confidence, raising their level again. Oxford responded with ability and character, led by the excellent Ross Swanson at fly-half; his kicking was immaculate, and the class of his individual performance warranted more than a loss in this match.

The sides traded scores, and the lead continued to switch until Cambridge blew the game open, tearing through the middle of the pitch and increasing their advantage to 31-20: Jamie Hood’s impressive charge evaded the Dark Blues’ unsure tackles, capping a strong 15 minute period for the agile and aggressive Cambridge backs. Oxford rallied strongly with 10 minutes left to play, but were unable to make any meaningful incisions into a resolute and rock-solid Light Blue defence: wave after wave of forward surges were repelled, and it was not until the 80th minute that Oxford finally stormed through for a consolation try. Too little, too late for the battling Blues, whose collective frustration was shared by swathes of Oxford people on Twickenham’s terraces.

The U21s Varsity match, played at the same stadium earlier in the morning, was won by Oxford in a dominating 53-17 rout, so congratulations must go to those players. The clear quality in our developmental sides can only bode well for future years.

Blues captain Dan Rosen, a player who has risen through the ranks of Blues rugby at Oxford, could only articulate the massive disappointment of his team. There is no middle territory in the Varsity match: it is either win or lose, a high stakes gambit whose success or failure is dictated by an 80 minutes of monumental significance. The quest to regain supremacy in 2010 will soon begin and the Blues must aim to avenge this tough and bitter defeat.

The U21s celebrate their win. 

Dark Blues scored the first few points. 

Light Blues increased their advantage to 31:20 in the second half. 

Photo: Alice Gardner