The opportunity to watch Oxford’s Blues take on England’s most successful professional rugby team attracted an impressive crowd to Iffley Road on a rainy Monday night, but with both teams still shaking off early-season rustiness and the inclement conditions making handling difficult, the suspicion was always that this encounter might not be a treat for the spectators. So it proved, but there was still much wholehearted effort for the crowd to appreciate in an attritional clash.
I headed my scoresheet with the words ‘Ox’ and ‘Tigers’, and though the punning comparison was unwitting, in truth it was a fair harbinger of how the game would pan out. Both sides were impressively strong and committed, but Leicester’s superior pace and predatory skill would ultimately win the day.
If the greasy ball and the formidable opposition weren’t enough to worry Oxford, they were forced into two changes just before kick-off, with Henry Hughes and Cassian Bramham-Law unexpectedly summoned at left wing and outside-centre respectively.
The Blues’ season did not get off to an auspicious start, as scrum-half Sam Egerton’s kick-off failed to travel the requisite ten metres. From the scrum, the Tigers took possession on halfway and a searing break from their left wing took them deep into Oxford territory. A slightly shellshocked Oxford never seemed to recover, and with five minutes not yet played an overlap on the blindside was well finished by Leicester’s flanker to give them an early 5-0 lead.
Oxford’s restart was mishandled to give them a put-in at the scrum and a chance to establish a foothold in the game. Egerton had apparently recovered his kicking boots by now as he sent an excellent kick into the corner. But this promising position was squandered through ill-discipline as Oxford twice infringed at scrums, allowing the Tigers to clear their lines.
The game was fragmented, as both teams struggled to go through the phases and the referee, employing the new ‘Crouch-touch-set’ command, officiated fastidiously at scrum-time, often blowing up before the ball had even been fed.
Captain James Harris at openside flanker was increasingly to the fore in this scrappy scenario, with one bullocking run into the Leicester 22 eventually leading to a penalty which Bramham-Law converted to reduce the arrears. Meanwhile, on the other flank, Oxford were soon forced to introduce another unplanned replacement in Mike Rickner.
Rickner wasted little time making an impact, soon receiving congratulations for an excellent piece of work at the ruck to win a penalty. With Oxford firmly encamped in the Leicester half and pressing for the score that would have given them the lead, however, Rickner’s next contribution was less propitious. A late tackle after the whistle had gone earnt him a ten-minute spell in the sin-bin.
Inevitably, Leicester made their numerical advantage tell, and a score before half-time seemed inevitable as they laid siege to the undermanned Oxford try-line. But their efforts were repelled by some heroic last-ditch tackling and when a turnover and clearance prompted the half-time whistle, it seemed the momentum was with Oxford.
Sadly that was not the case as shortly after the resumption a fearsome charge by the Tigers tighthead took Leicester within sight of the try-line and a couple of phases later they crossed in the corner for their second try.
A magnificent tap and run from Egerton offered Oxford brief respite from the Tigers’ increasing dominance, but on sixty minutes the Blues shipped a disastrous interception try as a stray pass in midfield was picked off by the Leicester inside-centre, and the score was duly converted.
That always looked likely to be the killer blow, both for the dispiriting manner of its concession and the fact that it took Leicester out of reach of a single score, and so it ultimately proved. But there was still consolation to be had for Oxford through the livewire Egerton, now establishing himself as the Blues’ outstanding performer with a series of searing breaks.
With the clock showing 81 minutes, the shaggy-locked scrum-half dummied and darted over from close range to give Oxford the try their endeavour surely merited.
This was perhaps an experimental Blues side, with the regular captain and vice-captain joining the injury absentees on the sidelines, but Oxford will take some important lessons with them for the coming season.
Their inability to regularly break the gain-line cost them crucial chances to turn possession and territory into points – they will look to their backs to attack with precision and invention to remedy this failing.