Mauricio Alencar reports on the Rugby Varsity Matches, as the men’s Blues triumph 34-7, while the women’s Blues lose 10-5.
Varsity came once again, and this time not in the crisp cold of Twickenham in December, but rather in the multi-seasonal July weather of Leicester. With an early wake up call at 9am (at least for students it’s early) ahead of a 10am coach journey from Iffley Road, Oxford students made their way to Mattioli Woods Welford Road stadium in Leicester ahead of the two Varsity matches, while both the men and women’s squads stayed in a hotel in Leicester overnight. Perhaps the real downside for Oxford students was having to take their seats alongside the couple of Cambridge supporters dressed up in their inequivalent light blue/turquoise/greenish jumpers and rugby tops. The luck for the supporters- and the stewards- was that the crowd had to socially distance with COVID measures in place. Beers down, snacks finished, and some Sandstorm blared out through the speakers, the first Varsity match, the women’s match, was set to start.
First came the early try from Bianca Coltellini, getting the day going in Leicester, as she shuffled through various Cambridge shirts, which were one-by-one dropping to the floor in hope of tackling the Oxford centre. On the restart, the Oxford defence guarded their try line effectively, with one tackle from Jessi Abele bulldozing the Cambridge attack down. When on the ball, some slick, pre-rehearsed loops from the Welsh international Manon Johnes, playing at 9 for the Dark Blues, kept the Cambridge women guessing, as the Tabs kept scuttling back with each new breakdown.
Despite Clodagh Holmes’s various quick line breaks from fullback, Cambridge reacted with some zeal. Their early arrivals to rucks disrupted Oxford’s flow of possession in the first half, with the Cambridge centre Emily Bell getting stuck into various breakdowns. Whenever the Tabs won the ball back, Jenni Shuttleworth and Maggie Simpson pierced the dark blue wall of defence with impressive runs; Simpson went on to score Cambridge’s first try by galloping down the wing. An impressive conversion from a difficult angle meant Cambridge led Oxford 7-5. Cambridge might have gotten away with not getting a yellow card in the last 10 minutes of the first half as they conceded three consecutive penalties for not rolling away. With the referee giving Cambridge one last chance with her warning, a slight scare for the Dark Blues near the end of the first half saw Cambridge intercept a ball next to the Oxford try line and subsequently score a try, but the referee Nia Parsonage called it back as Oxford had the advantage.
For much of the second half, Oxford were stuck in their own 50 metre territory, with some particularly strong Oxford breaks out of the half coming from Mahnon Jones and Megan Isaac. The more open gameplay in the second half afforded Maggie Simpson some space to make some ground on Oxford, but strong tackles from the likes of Maddie Hindson and Clodagh Holmes kept the Oxford defence intact. Though Oxford’s breakdown and defence massively improved in the rainy second half, a penalty was awarded to Cambridge with 13 minutes to go. Another strong kick from Anna Park, who was later awarded man of the match, put Cambridge up ahead 10-5. With 5 minutes to go, Oxford worked their way into Cambridge’s 22, but a connected defence from Cambridge prevented any late tries, as they closed in on their 13th Varsity win with the score 10-5 at full time. The heavy rain made space for some sun ahead of the second fixture of the day, with the Oxford men’s squad out warming up before the Cambridge women’s team had finished celebrating.
After a valiant rendition of the national anthem at Mattioli Woods Welford Road stadium was sung- so valiant that it would put England fans at Wembley to shame- the men’s match got underway. Cambridge flanker Hugo Lloyd Williams, who was recently awarded man of the match in the Cambridge Rugby League Varsity win over Oxford, took the first hit of the men’s Varsity. Straight off from the first breakdown, Cambridge swiftly shipped the ball out wide, playing various offloads, with Joe Gatus finishing off the first attacking play of the match with a try. With well over 75 minutes to play, Oxford were untamed, putting the pressure directly back on Cambridge. Rob Quinlan set the standard for the Dark Blues with a try, only for the ball to be deemed to have gone out of play. Though Quinlan came off injured only minutes later, it seems that his run down the wing inspired his substitute Henry Hackett, who himself scored a try after Tom Humberstone played a sublime long pass out, which skipped over two Dark Blues, bringing the score to 10-7 after Oxford had already scored from a penalty. An irritated reaction from a Cambridge winger sparked some ill tensions that would recur through the whole match. Long, goldie-lock haired Cambridge captain Stephen Leonard was seen having several words with his opponents throughout the game.
Andrew Durutalo, the former Ealing, Worcester and USA player, led the way with some explosive collisions, as Oxford’s terrific line-speed in defence forced multiple errors from the Tabs. After scoring yet another penaliy, Oxford capitalised on yet more Cambridge errors by scoring from a lineout after el capitano George Messum popped it back inside for the prop John Aaron Henry, bringing the score up 16-7 going into half time. Some thrilling catches from Dan Stoller and Louis Jackson finished off a brilliant first half for the Dark Blues under the sunny weather.
Though the weather was soon to change, as thunder gradually approached Mattioli Woods Welford Road from the far distance, the Dark Blues’ performance refused any kind of change. Piers von Dadelszen started the half off with a big tackle, as Bertie Watson came on as a hooker for the injured Will Barker. With the absence of scrums and mauls in both matches due to the RFU’s “Return to Rugby” roadmap under current COVID restrictions, Oxford could play tap-and-gos near the Cambridge touchline and pile the pressure on. A try eventually came from Andrew Humberstone, who then went on to convert his own try. Cambridge were suddenly on the attack and seemed to have managed to peg one try back. After some confusion from the crowd and from those managing the scoreboard in the stadium, it was confirmed that referee Andrew Jackson ruled out the try, as he then went on a spree, sin-binning Matt West and giving substitute Bertie Watson a red card for apparent foul play, leaving Oxford to play with 14 men for the final 20 minutes to go. Playing with a man down failed to faze the Oxford Blues, as the incoming lightning weather was matched by sturdy lightning runs from captain George Messum, lock Jasper Dix and flanker Andrew Durutalo. Tom Humberstone later scored from a penalty, emulating the work that had been done by his brother. With the Oxford crowd seemed to be audibly beating the Tabs off the pitch as well with various chants, Henry Hackett sprung up to score another terrific try, intercepting a wayward Cambridge pass to sprint down the wing, bring it home, and complete the successful shoeing of the Tabs. Torrential rain and lightning ensued at full time, but certainly celebrations will be somewhat brighter at Park End and at Varsity Club once OURFC get back to Oxford.
Image credits: Matt Impey via OURFC.