Wednesday afternoon saw the long-awaited return of the derby fixture between Oxford RL’s Blues Side and their local rivals, Oxford Brookes. Following a big win last week in a friendly against Brunel, James Clark’s side were looking to build on towards the start of the regular season. In a fired-up Brookes side with a big crowd behind them, the Blues had a serious test of their early season form.
The match began well, with strong work up the middle by the Oxford forwards allowing Clark to capitalise with a try in the opening minutes. Converting his own try, Clark set Oxford off to a good start. The run of the game didn’t stay with Oxford, though, as the big Brookes ball carriers got into the game, allowing the partisan crowd to get their tails up, becoming more vocal as two unconverted tries put Brookes in the lead.
Despite some fantastic counterattacking from deep by the Oxford back three, the freshness of some of the boys to Rugby League as a sport showed at times. Misplaced Gallic flair on the first tackle in repeated sets resulted in the ball staying out of Oxford hands for much of the first half. A stern team talk by head coach Dan Garbutt under the posts following the second Brookes try ironed out some of the looser play which was put- ting Oxford behind.
The Brookes crowd lost its voice somewhat as returning Blue James Smith showed he has lost none of his physicality following a year off, sending repeated Brookes runners back towards their line. Better set completion allowed Oxford to work back down to the Brookes end, with Jack Holmes crashing over his opposite number to put Oxford back ahead, leaving it 12-8 at half time.
The second half started well for Oxford, with two tries in quick succession. First off, Dan Smith was rewarded for his hard work in the middle with a try in the corner. Following the kick-off, Oxford quickly worked its way up the pitch, allowing pivot Mark Giza to put Clark through under the posts without a Brookes player laying a hand on him. The score now stood at 24-8.
The last 20 minutes of the match saw Brookes up the pressure, with Oxford second row Tom Bradley in the sin bin. The Brookes forwards showed no sign of tiring, and buoyed by the scything runs of one of their wingers worked two tries to close the score to 24-16. Despite some sloppy handling as fatigue set in, Oxford kept Brookes at bay, as Smith added to his defensive performance with a try from the base in the last ten.
Early season unfamiliarity showed at times, but with the talent evident in new players, like man of the match Jack Holmes, the Blues are off to a good start. With the local derby under their belts, they will now push on into the testing regular season with big tests coming up in the form of Birmingham and Loughborough in the coming weeks.
With their Varsity match at the end of Hilary term, Clark’s young squad has the time to mature as a rugby league side, hoping they will be able to emulate the form of their predecessors in the Dark Blue shirt. Oxford has been dominant in the fixture in recent history, and will surely be looking to secure a record-breaking seventh consecutive win over the Light Blues.