Sitting down with Sophie Behan, Women’s Rugby Blues captain, it is immediately clear just how seriously her team is taking the Varsity Match, as she hurries in straight from another session at Iffley Gym.
The women are certainly not resting on their laurels after last year’s 3-0 victory over Cambridge, for as Behan is keen to emphasise, every time you step out onto the pitch at Twickenham you have to be prepared: “When you prepare for a game normally it starts on the day, the pressure isn’t there on the pitch. For Varsity, I’ll be getting messages a week before wishing me luck. You stay in a hotel the night before, you’re away from your family and your housemates, there’s photographers and shirt presentations – that all makes it feel very different.”
As captain, she is well aware of her role on the day, helping to keep what can be a very tense, nervous atmosphere, as relaxed as possible: “My job is making it the same – people perform best when it’s what they know, so you minimise what you don’t know. Just don’t let little things throw you off,” she says, “it’s a game of minimising errors, not a game of being perfect.”
Behan emphasises what a talented and hardworking squad she had the privilege of captaining, and her responsibilities are made easier by the fact the side is coached by Gary Street, who won the Women’s Rugby Union World Cup as Head Coach for England in 2014.
Behan highlighted a few of the side’s star performers: “Sophie Trott is obviously one to watch. She was player of the match last year, and is a joy to watch. Johanna Dombrowski was a visiting student from Williams College when she played her first Varsity match and is now at Oxford for a DPhil and is going to be playing in her second Varsity, having come back incredibly strong from an ACL injury.” Pat Metcalfe-Jones is also a standout. The French and Italian student has been training with Harlequins this year as well as balancing a degree and Blues commitments.
Overall, Behan couldn’t be more positive about the Blues chances against a Cambridge side who are currently playing in the division below them, and have not been tested by a top quality team this season.
For the men, captain Conor Kearns is keen to stress the challenge the squad faces. Like Behan, he stresses the importance of trying to recreate normality in what can be a disorientating environment for any players who haven’t experienced it before: “you have to just try to stay within the process, trying to maintain consistency will get you as prepared as you possibly can be for such a big occasion.”
Kearns also sings the praises of the benefits the pre-season tour had for creating a great team atmosphere. “Getting away to America was a great opportunity, when we got back we’d begun to mould into the beginnings of a team, and with each successive game we’ve grown closer and now the team has a strong bond.”
He is similarly ebullient about the pleasure of having a team with some great professional experience: “We realise how lucky we are to have these ex-pros in the team, they bring an aspect of professionalism which the younger guys really look up to.”
He is keen to pick out Andy Saull, who made over a hundred club appearances for Saracens, as well as Will Wilson who spent the summer playing with England’s Sevens team.
“We’ve got some really exciting talents and our game plan is to go there and play rugby. With the quality of players we’ve got it would be a disservice not to go out there and try to play attractive rugby.”
It seems like Oxford’s chances of a Varsity double this year are better than ever: the fans should be treated to a fantastic display of high-quality rugby.