On the back of a strong attacking performance away to Richmond a week ago, the Blues were looking to notch up their first home win of the season as they entertained a combined Wasps/Henley Hawks XV at Iffley Road on Monday. With club captain John Carter reinstated at Number 8 having dropped himself for the Richmond match, the coaching team were hoping for another morale-boosting win as the countdown to the 131st Varsity Match at Twickenham reached 50 days this week.
It was nigh-on perfect autumn rugby conditions as Oxford kicked off, but for the first half-hour the match itself was a very scrappy affair. The Blues showed flashes of danger in attack, with Carter consistently gaining ground from the base of the scrum and fellow back-rower Derek Asbun keeping himself busy with good support play around the park, but there were far too many handling errors from both sides for any continuity to appear, and neither the scrums nor line-outs from either side were consistently clean. As it was, Oxford slightly had the upper hand, their stronger pack forcing a number of breakdown penalties and allowing left wing Cassian Bramham-Law to kick three penalties and give them a 9-0 lead as the half-hour mark passed.
With five minutes to go in the half, Oxford finally strung some phases together and gave the near-capacity crowd something to cheer about. First, good work from ex-England Sevens player Tom Mitchell at 10 gave Bramham-Law the chance to sneak over in the corner, but he knocked on under pressure. Then, after Carter had cleared up the back of yet another messy scrum, a menacing dummy run from returning blue Sean Morris gave outside-centre (and Hong Kong international) Sebastian Perkins the chance to break through the Wasps midfield and he then neatly offloaded on his inside for Morris to stroll over under the posts and give Oxford a 16-0 lead at half-time, following Bramham-Law’s easy conversion.
Disappointingly, the second-half started in much the same way as the first, with a rash of knock-ons and forced miracle-passes scuppering Oxford’s chances of putting more points on the board. An unfortunate injury to scrum-half Sam Egerton gave Ruairi O’Donovan a chance to impress, while the management also made four changes in the pack, presumably to give everyone enough game time to stake their claim. By this point fifty-odd minutes in, Oxford’s strong ball carriers were starting to make replacement lock Tom Evans and double-blue Karl Outen putting in the hard yards.
The big men also went to work on the Wasps line-out, which was shaky throughout the evening, and this resulted in Oxford’s second try, substitute hooker A.J. Connor pouncing on a loose ball from a poor throw to barrel over, the ever reliable Bramham-Law adding the extras.
Oxford were clearly in the ascendant, even without captain Carter who had come off just before the second try having been Oxford’s best player up until that point. His aggressive ball-carrying and obvious affinity with the ‘Caveman’ look make comparisons with cult-hero Sebastien Chabal easy to draw, and he will be a key player if Oxford are to secure a second successive Varsity match victory in December.
Fresher fly-half Matt Janney, on for Mitchell, showed some excellent distribution to get Oxford deep in the Wasps half soon after the restart, and when they turned down a kickable penalty to go for the corner it was clear the Blues were going in for the kill. The subsequent line-out was scrappy, again, but wing Sean Morris hoovered up a poor clearance kick to allow all-action seven Derek Asbun, who showed tremendous work-rate all night, to pop up on his shoulder and charge over under the posts. It was now 30-0 with fifteen minutes to go, and the writing was on the wall for a tired-looking Wasps side who were appeared dead set on keeping the ball alive at all times, often to their detriment.
Oxford seemed determined not to rest on their laurels, and after their opposition were reduced to 14 men for the last nine minutes after one breakdown infringement too many, Oxford used their numerical advantage in the scrum to gain a useful attacking platform. Bramham-Law, solid in all aspects of his game throughout the match, came off his wing into the midfield and drove hard before neatly offloading to centre Scott Fernquest to touch down in the corner. Bramham-Law was unable to add the extras from a tight angle, and with no more points scored that was how the match ended: a 35-0 victory to the Blues. Centre Perkins was awarded man of the match for his good link-play and defence, but that award could easily have gone to Asbun or Carter, while replacement prop Andrew Grounds made a strong impression in the loose when he came on.
After the match, Captain John Carter told Cherwell Sport, ‘We’re working towards being 100%. There were a few errors in the set piece, but keeping them scoreless showed the defence was excellent and I was pleased with the way we wore them down as the match went on’.
And that sums it up neatly. This was a fairly limited Wasps side, and there are definite improvements to be sought in the scrum, line-out and general handling, but this was a job well done for Oxford. Tougher tests lie in their path, starting next Tuesday with a tricky away fixture to National League 1 side Ealing, in the lead up to the 8th of December, where a date with the oldest enemy of all awaits.