The Varsity Match is one of the oldest of sporting battles, first held in 1872, only a year after the first ever rugby international between England and Scotland. This heritage and prestige has led to corporate entities trying to grab some of the mythos for themselves; Nomura tried ‘Grudgeby’, while in the last year Jack Wills’ involvement has changed the image slightly – more gilets and shooting than lineouts and rucking – but despite this, the overall nature of the event, and the refined animosity it brings, remains wonderfully unsullied. So every year the Blue hordes descend upon the Twickenham, the last amateur match fittingly held at the birthplace of rugby, as it has been for the last 90 years (World Wars permitting). Amateur by name only, as neither of these two incredibly well drilled and driven sides would be willing to give an inch, and as every year a ferocious battle was all but certain.
As is traditional, the match was preceded by the U21s Varsity, a less prestigious but no less enjoyable amuse bouche before the main event. Oxford won this by 19 points to 11, with the victory more comfortable than the scoreline would suggest. Tries from full back Dan Levene and no. 8 Ben Girling, the second an excellent finish in the corner after a well worked lineout, sandwiched a score for the Cambridge 12. However, when wing John Harkness touched down under the posts immediately before half-time having been set loose following fresher Will Dace’s excellent dummy through the midfield, and although a penalty on the whistle made the score 19-8, a rout looked likely. As it was, Cambridge’s physical defence held firm for the second half and they converted another penalty of their own to narrow the gap, but the result never looked in doubt. The pacy back three of Harkness, Levene and Sam Wareham caused continuous problems out wide while second rows Matthew Craggs and Will Fell provided the grunt up front, and looked like potential future Blues.
So with the Varsity Series already secured 3-1, the Blues could surely relax, safe in the knowledge of an overall victory secured? This could not be further from the truth. Although the squad featured many returning Blues, including six in the pack from last year’s 21-10 victory, it was clear from captain John Carter’s programme notes that he was taking nothing for granted.
Anthem heartily sung, pints refilled and the crowd swelling to a healthy 17000 (sadly nowhere near filling ‘HQ’, but still enough to provide a fantastic atmosphere throughout), the match kicked off. Immediately, Cambridge were on the offensive, a strong driving maul drawing an offense and allowing fly-half Steve Townend to slot the first points of the match and give the Light Blues the ideal start.
John Carter would have wanted an immediate response from his players, and they gave him one. A stolen lineout, following an excellent kick by Oxford ten Tom Mitchell, gave the Oxford back line a free run in the Cambridge 22, and while wing Cassian Bramham-Law was unable to reach the line, a quick drive from the resulting ruck allowed tighthead prop Will Kane to bundle over. A good conversion by Bramham-Law, playing his first match in over a month following injury, gave Oxford a 7-3 lead, and he was able to extend this to 10-3 on the quarter-hour after a Cambridge infringement.
However, if Oxford thought they would add further points with similar ease they were sorely mistaken. Some enterprising back play was undermined by a poor kick from Bramham-Law straight down the throat of Cambridge’s dangerous full back Tom O’Toole, winner of last year’s BUCS championship with Durham. He took advantage of the broken field situation to split the defence with a delightful chip which was then hacked on by Light Blue number nine Don Blake. As he slid over under the posts along with two covering defenders it was not immediately clear who had touched down, and it took several minutes for the video referee to eventually award a five metre scrum to Cambridge in the centre of the pitch. In the build-up to the try John Carter had been taken off as a blood replacement following some ‘personal treatment’ from his opposite number Dave Allen (footage of the incident being shown on the big screens left the crowd baying for blood), and his lack of weight at the base of the scrum contributed to the Oxford pack crumbling under immense pressure, leaving the referee no choice but to award an easily converted penalty try, making the score a tantalising 10-all.
The rest of the half passed with less incident as both sides scrapped in the middle of the park, Oxford’s big ball carriers Karl Outen and Derek Asbun putting in some hard yards as both teams tried to achieve some degree of superiority. Oxford scored the only points, another Bramham-Law penalty after hands in the ruck, while the return of John Carter, complete with a bruise the size of Belgium over one eye, again drew the ire of the crowd for the unsporting behaviour shown. The Cambridge pack were beginning to get their driving maul working, but the Dark Blue defence held firm and they were worth their 13-10 lead at half time.
If Oxford’s first half start had been less than ideal, their second half’s was quite the reverse. Slick hands in the midfield released wing Sean Morris down the centre; he passed to fly half Tom Mitchell whose clever kick forced the Cambridge wing to concede a lineout deep in his own 22. From this, Oxford set up a maul, which accelerated towards the Light Blue line and let vice-captain Outen flop over for the try. Bramham-Law missed the conversion from out wide, but his side were definitely in the ascendancy.
Indeed, this seemed to galvanise the entire Dark Blue side, as suddenly their strike moves were creating holes for the back three , the lines of running in the threequarters were more incisive and bullocking runs from Outen and Carter (both incidentally sporting the most interesting hairstyles on the pitch) kept Oxford on the front foot. Bramham-Law missed one penalty, but coolly slotted another to make it 21-10, the same score as last year. However, they were clearly not content to rest on this feat, and it was only an awfully sliced drop goal from Mitchell with numbers begging to his left that prevented the score being increased.
All of the rugby was being played by Oxford by this point, with fresher scrum-half Sam Egerton providing consistently quick ball off the base of every ruck, while any Cambridge clearance was immediately returned with menace. The inevitable raft of substitutions did little to change this, and after perpetually busy Oxford blindside Derek Asbun charged down a clearance kick and then won a penalty at the ensuing ruck, Carter took the scrum as Oxford went in for the kill.
Successfully, as it turned out. Egerton picked up from the back of the scrum and fed Mitchell, whose nice line and shimmy fooled the defence and let him dot down just past the posts. Replacement wing Matt Janney converted, and at 28-10 the match was won. Cambridge tried to salvage some pride with a big effort for the last ten minutes, but their set piece had crumbled by this point, and the Dark Blue defence held firm until the final whistle, to secure a first retention of the Varsity trophy in ten years and inspire scenes of jubilation for those not wearing minty green.
The man of the match trophy was awarded to Karl Outen with no argument, as his ball carrying and lineout work had been consistently superb throughout the day, but in all honesty it could have been given to any number of players. The Oxford tight five had truly demoralised their opponents up front, John Carter spent the whole second half making crunching hit after crunching hit, despite only being able to see out of one eye, while behind the scrum Egerton and Mitchell ran the game superbly while the pace men, Sean Morris especially, always looked dangerous with ball in hand. Oxford were truly better from 1 to 15, and the scoreline ended up flattering Cambridge.
As captain John Carter’s last match before retiring (for the second, and given the state of his body, probably last time) it was a slightly bittersweet finish, but he can finish a satisfied man, having given Cambridge and awful lot to think about if they have any intention of turning things around come twelve months from now.