When you imagine a sports event where bodies are thrown around all over the place, you don’t necessarily think of a netball match straight away. But that was what was on display at Iffley on Wednesday of Second Week as the Blues net- ball side took on Nottingham in a brutally physical league fixture, losing 34-25.

Last year was a season of sustained and con- tinued success for the Blues, who finished top of the BUCS Midlands 2A league with a goal difference of +141. A run of four consecutive wins in the final stretch of the season, as well as an emphatic 32-23 victory over Warwick 1sts led to promotion into the higher ech- elons of the BUCS Midlands 1A. Playing the best teams in the country week in, week out has soon proved to be a baptism of fire for theUniversity netball side.

OUNC’s season got off to a slow start, with a loss to perennial sporting powerhouse Loughborough in their first league match. Confidence remains high in the squad; this is very much a continuity team, with many of the last year’s top players retained, bestow- ing the side with a core group of experienced veterans, as well as some exciting fresh talent rising through the ranks. One can see why expectations inside and outside Blues netball are sky-high for this season. 

The second competitive encounter of the season came against Nottingham. utilising home advantage to the maximum, the Blues ran out to a 6-point lead within the opening 5 minutes against Nottingham. however, their opponents were not to be put away so easily as they clawed their way back into the game by the end of the first quarter demonstrating the skill and resilience that has taken them to the summit of BUCS Midlands 1A. Nottingham’s physicality defined the second quarter’s the opposing team made an apparent effort to physically impose upon the Dark blues, causing Oxford players to fall left, right and centre. The aggressive style of play inevitably put pressure on the Blues, particularly on the attack, although the defence did fantastically to stop the flood- gates from opening, led by the infallible captain Beth Nichol at centre. The strength of Nottingham persisted throughout the second half, with some fiercely contested refer- eeing decisions causing Dark Blue tempers to flair. Despite their determination, the Blues were unable to regain the lead and lost their second consecutive game, dropping to the bottom of BUCS Midlands 1A.

As with any loss, there were positives to take away. The attack, which had faltered against the intimidating Loughborough defence, had shown more promise and chemistry, display- ing occasional brilliance in bringing the ball down the court. The defence was once again superb, aided by the court vision and play- reading of goalkeeper/goal defence Ailsa Key- ser, who made successive flying steals to break up Nottingham’s attack. Man of the match was awarded to fresher Frankie Anderson, goalkeeper/wing defence, who anchored the Blues defence along with Keyser and Nichol.

Hoping to move on from the defeat, Oxford took on historic rivals Cambridge on the 28th in what many passionate netball fans hoped to be a thrilling dress rehearsal for the Varsity match in Hilary. Cambridge had lost earlier in the week to Worcester University, landing them just above Oxford in the league tables due to goal difference. The Light Blues had also been beaten by Nottingham by the same margin as Oxford, although according to sources lacked the Dark Blues’ physicality and court presence.

The early-season clash of rivals was thus fuelled not only by the age-old rivalry between the two universities, but also by the competi- tive desire not to be the bottom-dwellers of the division. However, Oxford’s hopes were dashed as they fell 33-29, succumbing to the pressure of playing away at Cambridge, who were led by an outstanding second-year cap- tain Frances Lee-Barber.

OUNC were once again impressive on the defensive end but were unable to build on the momentum generated in the match against Nottingham on the attack, as they failed to score over 30 points for the third consecutive match. 

Given the tumultuous start to the season, the stage is set for a challenging campaign. OUNC faces a formidable Worcester side away next week, before beginning a three-game home stand against Nottingham Trent, Cardiff and Loughborough. Whether they can turn their season around will inevitably depend on the team’s character and abilitiy to move on and develop. Here the squad’s relative youth may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Netball is sometimes unfairly forgotten in Oxford, a sport which is played the length and breadth of the country in schools but has undoubtedly been pushed into the shade somewhat at university level by the dominance of rowing, rugby and football.  The Blues, energised and aiming for successm will hope to change that. For now though, the challenge for OUNC is to climb off the foot of the table and reclaim some pride, lost at the hands of the Tabs