Brasenose came out on top as College Sevens Champions after a keenly contested tournament, with 24 teams taking part. Although the tournament, held at Iffley Road, did not quite attract the raucous crowds or breathtaking skills we are accustomed to seeing on the IRB tour although St Peter’s chunky playmaker Luke Jagoe claims he ‘’came close to a Waisale Serevi level of jazz’’. Either way, this won’t matter to the victors as they were able to reclaim some of the pride lost during their double-relegation season.
With only one team from eight pools of three, the first round saw some of the traditional heavyweights of the college leagues fall at the first hurdle. Christ Church and Keble, two teams that have enjoyed good seasons in the Premier Division of college rugby, were knocked out at the pool stage by the eventual finalists, St Hildas and Brasenose, with Brasenose sending an early warning to the other teams by scoring 78 points in their three 10 minute games. It soon became clear that the teams playing the best brand of ‘Sevens’ rugby, keeping the ball alive, avoiding contact and moving the ball laterally across the pitch waiting to find an opening, would triumph. In contrast, those teams that played in a more conventional manner of keeping the ball tight around the ruck area, driving the ball up the middle of the pitch and working through the phases would come unstuck against teams that moved the ball around the park and possessed the speed to run in tries from 40 or 50 metres. On the whole, the teams that adapted best to Sevens won their pools, often overcoming teams that had been playing in higher leagues than them in the regular season, with performance in the 15 man game not a good indicator of how a team would fare.
As the competition heated up at the quarter final stage, some six or seven hours after the first pool match had taken place, Pembroke proved this to be true, outscoring the reigning Premier Division winners and Cuppers Champions Teddy Hall by 3 tries to 1 to win 15-7. Another team found in the lower reaches of the college leagues, St Hildas, put Oriel, the other 2012 Cuppers finalists to the sword 26-10, with the pace of Ali Shipman and George Darrah out too much for Oriel to handle. In the other quarter finals, Brasenose put in another clinical performance to run in 5 tries to dispatch New 26-5. The highest scoring quarter-final saw St Catz and Lincoln score a combined 48 points. St Catz led comfortably through tries from the aging Chris Copplestone, Ross Williamson and young prop Dean Irvine, who had the crowd on their feet with an outrageous goosestep and then proceeded to burn the Lincoln winger on the outside, to the adulation of the crowd. Clinging on for a 29-19 victory in the end, St Catz proved they are now once again a force to be reckoned with in college rugby following a double-promotion back up to the Premier Division and a narrow Cuppers semi-final defeat.
In the first semi-final, Pembroke came out the victors over St Catz in a topsy-turvy game. Leading by a couple of scores at half-time, after some telling runs from Will Rowlands, Pembroke struggled in the second half, with St Catz striking back to gain the lead with a couple of minutes left. However, on the last play of the game, a speculative pass saw Pembroke intercept and score under the posts to win a thriller 33-26. The second semi-final proved to be just as exciting, with Brasenose and St Hildas, the two teams that had looked the most dangerous throughout the early stages going toe to toe. In what was probably the game of the tournament, Brasenose emerged as winners 19-12, but it really could have gone either way. After this, the final was somewhat of an anti-climax. In the end, Brasenose ran out as winners quite comfortably by 26 points to 7, with double try-scorer Ben Claxton playing a starring role.
What was most encouraging about the tournament is that it showed the strength in depth of rugby in Oxford. Colleges not necessarily seen as ‘rugby colleges’ and those that had not fared particularly well in the league of Cuppers flourished. None of the four semi-finalists competed at the top end of the Premier Division this season, and with decent teams such as Christ Church, Univ and Exeter failing to make it out of the group stages, next season certainly promises to be one in which more teams than ever compete for places at the top of the tree. If the form showed by some of the teams during this Sevens tournament is carried over into the regular season next term, college rugby will no longer be defined by the dominance of a Teddy Hall-Keble dichotomy. Special mention should go to OURFC for organizing such a successful event, and with around 200 players taking part, there is certainly scope for more Sevens to be played in Trinity term, provided finalists can be persuaded to leave the library.