Dark Blues victorious in Varsity 2013

Oxford 32 – 4 Cambridge

Varsity 2013 saw the Dark Blues of Oxford and the Light Blues of Cambridge renew hostilities in the unfamiliar but suitably atmospheric location of the Honourable Artillery Company Ground in Moorgate, London on Friday 8th March. With the overall series between the sides sitting at 16-15 in Cambridge’s favour with one draw, Oxford hardly needed more motivation to try and extend their winning run in the fixture to four consecutive matches.

A narrow pitch and drizzling conditions did not suit the Dark Blues’ game plan but the team were not fazed as they stayed relaxed, trained and prepared for the showpiece fixture just like any other. All the pre-match hype had been at risk of distracting the players but the focus and quiet intensity showed throughout the day, including the lengthy walk out from the changing rooms to the pitch, put paid to any hopes of a slip-up.

Oxford’s determination was shown immediately from the kick-off as, for the second match in succession, Jake Whittaker, who delivered one of the finest kicking performances in Varsity history, banged the kick-off dead to set up a goal line drop-out as the first touch of the ball. The passion and fire of the Oxford players was visible to all present, as they celebrated this opening fervently, roaring their superiority into the despondent faces of the Cambridge players.

After this introduction, Varsity delivered the massive carries and huge hits that its frantic initial stages inevitably provide. With Cambridge unable to recover from the setback of failing to field the kick-off, sustained Oxford pressure meant that pivot and Club President, Jack Baker, glided through a gap that appeared in the Cambridge defence to open the scoring and delight the Oxford players.

The tricky handling conditions saw the nervy opening stages plagued with handling errors, preventing Oxford from settling in to their usual free-flowing style of rugby. Fortunately, the fitness and ferocious defence, which this team had been built on, came to the fore and the Dark Blues asserted a physical dominance over proceedings which they refused to relinquish throughout the afternoon, with Luke Jagoe, James Smith, Ed Bonnell and Billy Saundry all excelling in the middle of the park.

With errors and strong defence continuing to prevent either side from scoring as the first half continued, a lapse in communication saw Oxford’s normally consistent defensive shift fail to materialise and some fortunate handling allowed the Cambridge winger a smart finish in the corner, scoring the Light Blues’ first and, as would turn out, only points since 2011. With both kickers having missed their conversions the scores were deadlocked at 4 – 4 midway through the first half.

Cambridge, however, made a hash of the following kick-off, again presenting Oxford ideal field position to exert continuous pressure with barnstorming runs from centres Olly Jones and Ross Williamson. Oxford began to settle into the game and this pressure was converted into points as the ball was worked wide by Baker and Whittaker in typical fashion, presenting fullback, John Bremridge, with the opportunity to slide over in the corner.

The try energised the Oxford side who sensed the opportunity to turn the screw against their opponents, flagging as half-time drew nearer. Swinging the ball from side to side and with the back three of Bremridge, Mckenna and Barber working diligently to set up strong field position, smart work from hooker, Smith, saw him hit Tom Cole, running one of his famous lines which have been such a force all season. The former Maroon has been a revelation in the Blues set-up this year and his pace and power proved too much for the Light Blues as he burst his way over the line with three men attempting to hold him back. As half-time was signalled, the Dark Blues led 16 – 4.

Starting the second half with the message to cut out simple, preventable errors but to otherwise carry on with more of the same, Oxford rarely looked troubled as the game progressed. Match-day reserve, Ali Shipman, called in at the last minute for the incapacitated Oakley Cox, fresh off the back of five tries in the Maroons Varsity and winner of last year’s Bob Mahuta trophy, caused few surprises when he powered his way through the Cambridge edge defence with his first touch of the ball.

Grinding and solid defence saw Cambridge become increasingly frustrated as their handling continued to let them down and the game slipped ever further out of their grasp. Tom Hiron and Ben Reavley delivered characteristically strong performances both with ball in hand and in defence, their freshness off the bench enabling them to shine as the match wore on.

In the final stages, two smartly taken interception tries from Jake Whittaker and Ali Shipman saw the Dark Blues put the result beyond doubt, increasing the margin between the sides to a level reflective of the supremacy which their defensive play and fitness had merited. As the final whistle blew, the Dark Blues could be satisfied with their 32 – 4 margin of victory and reflect on a hard-fought and well-earned result against a much-improved Cambridge side. For the entire 80 minutes, loose forward, Ben Claxton, turned out a game-winning attacking and defensive performance exceptional only to those who are not used to seeing him play. Captain Hugo Fearon’s organisation and leadership saw him shade the voting for the Bob Mahuta on the day but if Claxton plays his third Varsity in 2014, the man of the match accolade is surely only one of many that deservingly await.

With celebratory lemonades out of the way, clear heads returning once more and haircuts returning to normal, talk has already turned to Varsity 2014. The opportunity to win a fifth Varsity in a row and take the lead in the overall series for the first time since 1985 is already proving exciting for the squad. With eleven returning blues from the 17-man squad, the re-emergence of stalwarts of the 2011 vintage, the return from injury of those unable to play in this year’s match and a number of quality players in this year’s Maroons squad who will seek to push for selection next year, 2014 looks set to be a bright year for OURLFC and will undoubtedly see the club reach new heights.

Team: Bremridge, McKenna, Jones, Williamson, Barber, Baker, Whittaker, Jagoe, Smith, Fearon (C), Bonnell, Saundry, Claxton

Substitutions: Hiron, Cole, Reavley, Shipman

Tries: Baker, Bremridge, Cole, Shipman (2), Whittaker

Conversions: Whittaker (4)