Oxford Blues: 25
Sale Sharks: 43
A large crowd braved the fearsome early November cold to see the university’s finest once more come up just short against one of the best rugby teams in the country. After defeats against London Wasps and Cardiff Blues already this term the Blues were determined to produce a positive result and performance. However Sale, even without the services of world cup winner Jason Robinson who was listed as a replacement in the programme, were always in control of the game and deserved their comfortable victory.
A frantic and combative start to the game saw both sides struggle to take control. A penalty from Blues number 10 Charlie Marr put his side three nil ahead after 15 minutes, but Sale were growing in confidence with the ball in hand and looked increasingly likely to take the lead. They eventually did cross the try line with 20 minutes on the clock. Unfortunately this was the point that I had decided to take up the offer of a beer and a burger included by OURFC in the ticket price. I therefore missed the try so cannot describe it here – I can however inform you that the burger was delicious.
The Blues responded very well to this setback and were soon back in the lead. A clever short restart from Marr won his side a penalty, which he duly converted to make the score 6-5 – the Blues having been behind for only a matter of seconds. This lead always looked precarious however and Sale made the rapidly tiring blues pay as half time approached. Two well worked tries in as many minutes from the professional outfit saw them take a lead they would not surrender for the rest of the game.
The Blues were looking shell shocked and the pressure from Sale continued relentlessly. The large crowd grew quieter as a big Oxford defeat looked ever more likely – although this might have just been a sign of the cold properly setting in. The crowd were warmed however by a fabulous Blues try to bring them back into the game before the half time interval. Fly half Marr broke through the Sale defensive line for the first time in the night before feeding winger Luke Jones who provided a fine finish. Marr added the extras to put the Blues back within a score of the Sharks. Some belligerent defensive work on the Blues try line in the last action of the half kept the Blues very much in the game with the score at 13-19.
The second half began in frenetic fashion with both sides clearly fired up. Blues replacement Tom Yusef encapsulated his side’s mindset with a huge hit to bring Sale’s first move of the half to an abrupt end. The Blues were unable to capitalise on the atmosphere that this tackle created in the crowd however, and soon after Sale scored again. The Blues were beginning to look tired and, like in the first half, their line was breached for a second time just two minutes later. On this occasion a scintillating Sale move led to the try – and once more the Blues looked as if they could be on the end of thrashing.
The spirit in the Blues camp has to be admired however seeing as, despite being 25 points behind and with fatigue noticeably affecting many of the team; they gradually clawed their way back into the ascendency. One good chance went begging due to some poor handling along the line, but soon after they were rewarded with a deserved score, captain Nick Haydon darting over in the corner following some excellent pressure from the Blues forwards.
As the game entered the final ten minutes the Blues continued to look like the better side – a real credit to their fitness and conditioning considering the professionalism of the team they were playing. They soon crossed the Sharks’ line for the third time in the match when Alex Rowe tumbled over following an excellent driving maul. After Marr added the extras the crowd sensed a magnificent comeback could be on the cards, but some handling mistakes meant that the further try needed to set up a grandstand finish just evaded the Blues. In fact it was Sale who had the last say, running in an easy try in the last play of the game as the Blues defensive line was hampered by the search for a try of their own.
The Blues will undoubtedly be disappointed with the final result, and especially twice conceding tries in quick succession which ultimately lost them the game. The spirit and determination on show was exemplary however, and with the Varsity match at Twickenham now under a month away there are plenty of positives to take forward.