When I tell people I’m off to rugby fives training, the most common reaction is confusion. “Aren’t you quite, like, small to be a rugby player?” No, I explain to them, it’s not named after the sport with an egg-shaped ball, but after Rugby School, where the game was developed in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it’s more like playing squash with your hands. You wear padded gloves on both hands, and aim to hit a hard, bouncy ball around a court roughly the same size and shape as a squash court such that your opponent can’t return it before it bounces twice. It is a sport with a fairly small following, but those who play love it for the fast, intense rallies. It is also unusual among court sports in that it forces you to develop a degree of ambidexterity – players who are much weaker with one hand than the other often struggle to play at a high level. Oxford University Rugby Fives Club is one of the bigger clubs at university level, and with the Varsity match against a strong Cambridge team approaching at the end of Fifth Week, we are training hard in an attempt to avenge last year’s heavy loss.
The rugby fives season runs from September to about March, stopping before the courts get too hot during the summer months. Consequently, OURFvC will start training as soon as the academic year begins, with returning players often organising casual games amongst themselves. Throughout Michaelmas and Hilary, the team trains on court three times a week, and goes for a run as a team on Wednesday mornings. One of the best things about training with the fives team is that the atmosphere is very relaxed. Many players learn to play at school or in local clubs, but coaching is much more informal at adult levels. Instead, first-team players will often supervise matches between less experienced members of the squad, and so the process of improvement is very much peer-driven. We often find ourselves training to the thumping techno that accompanies the rowers’ erg sessions, or emerge from the building to find the Athletics Club in the midst of a brutal sprint session.
All this being said, there is a marked upward shift in intensity at the beginning of Hilary term. Training becomes more of a priority, and players start to push their own cases for the top spots in the Varsity line-up. The most brutal element of training is the Wednesday morning run, which many players opt out of in Michaelmas but drag themselves through in Hilary: sprints up Headington Hill on bitterly cold mornings in January are nobody’s idea of fun.
Matches against clubs and wider tournaments come thick and fast around this time of year, and the season rolls forward to the rhythm of various key fixtures: the National Under-25s Championship, the OURFvC Past v Present fixture (a dress rehearsal for Varsity in all but name, albeit with the benefit of old OURFvC players subsidising a fantastic dinner after the fixture) and then our finale: the Varsity fixture in London, played on the penultimate Saturday in February. Cambridge have been a formidable outfit in recent years, and this year looks like it will be no different – we are trying to stave off a defeat against a squad with at least six players in the world’s top 50. The odds are not in our favour, but we hope that a combination of our hard work in training and a large pinch of luck might give us a shot at a surprise win. Watch this space