It’s a month and a half before Varsity kicks off, but the women’s rugby squad have just finished a brutal HIIT session. They have been sprinting up and down the pitch for quite some time now, and they were only allowed a few seconds of rest in between each burst. At the end of the workout, the players convene as a group, and they discuss the importance of fitness in the lead-up to Varsity. After waiting for some time, some of the squad members from the women’s team shared some of their early thoughts on Varsity with me. There is a sense that, even with so long to go, the squad demands a high level of quality in preparation for when the first drop kick gets Varsity going on the 4th of July.
“I think players are just super keen to get back to it and I think we’ve been looking really sharp given the lot of time we’ve had off. I think people just love being back and it’s definitely shown,” Fiona Kennedy, the captain of the women’s rugby team, tells me. Bianca Coltellini, who will be playing Varsity for the first time this year, told me that “no one’s missed any sessions really” and that it was great to see “how badly everyone wants” to play rugby and win Varsity this year. It’s been a long year for the rugby club. Multiple lockdowns, having to adapt to new rules in training and exams for many of the finalists in the squads have meant that the club’s preparation in the buildup to Varsity has been more difficult than ever. It has been the case for every other sports club in the university that this has been a strange and difficult academic year, but OURFC have the chance to cap it all off with two wins over the Tabs in front of a crowd of dark blue in Leicester.
The Varsity Matches has a long history of 149 years, first being played in 1872. The Dark Blues have won a total of 79 Varsity Matches, with the men’s team winning 60 of the 138 matches and the women’s team winning 19 of the 31 matches. There have been a total of 14 draws in the men’s fixtures and no draws in the women’s fixtures. In a strange year where the Varsity Matches will be played in the summer rather in December-as is the tradition- George Messum, who is the captain of the men’s Blues playing at back row, made a point of making the most out of the uniqueness of the year: “I think maybe one of the positives of this year is that it does make it different to perhaps what’s been happening in previous years. I’m fortunate enough to have been involved a few years ago and obviously last year, so as experience it’s certainly been different. It’s been a nice sort of change of pace and timing on that side.”
Both teams will be looking to put December 2019’s results aside ahead of July’s match. The women’s team narrowly lost 5-8 to Cambridge at Twickenham in 2019, whereas the men’s team lost 15-0. Teams often change every year with the turnover of players coming in as new undergraduates or postgraduates. Louis Jackson, who plays as a back, thinks this turnaround of players is “one of the kind of beauties of the Varsity Match”, as new players are able to inject added quality and energy to the teams every year. The official squads will be announced to the public in due course.
Sam Miller has played in two Varsity matches before as a flanker, winning in 2018 but losing the year after. He tells me what kind of impact the “pleasure of winning and the displeasure of losing” has on pressure and preparation: “It adds that extra motivation to want to win and to avoid the losses. It’s definitely on the forefront of your memory but that’s not how you prepare for a game. You prepare for a game by focusing on your strengths and looking to win rather than being scared to lose.” Should the Oxford men’s team win Varsity, it will be their 8th win in 11 years.
Both the men and women’s teams are preparing by looking solely at themselves. Little to no video footage from Cambridge is available due to the lack of matches played in the last year. “The focus is on us”, as Shirley Kennedy told me. Clodagh Holmes, a winger for the women’s team, said that “in the past there has probably been a bit too much focus on what Cambridge were doing and not necessarily on what we’re doing”. She added that they will focus on “strengthening ourselves and not aiming to weaken Cambridge”. Sam Miller echoed these thoughts. The men’s squad is not tamed by the prospect of facing Cambridge’s locks Flip van der Merwe and James Horwill, who have 98 international caps between them for South Africa and Australia respectively. Sam said that they will “prepare how [they] can best rather than over-analysing the opposition”.
Oxford will have some high-level experience of their own in the teams. Manon Johnes, who is currently training with the Blues ahead of what could potentially be her first Varsity for the Oxford women’s team, has 13 caps for Wales, whereas George Messum has previously captained ‘England students’. In order for the squads to gain match experience playing together, both teams are also making use of stage “E2” of the RFU’s “Return to Rugby” roadmap, allowing them to play full contact matches against other clubs. In one recent match against Maidenhead RFC, the men’s Blues beat a physical team 35-7 in a match which consisted of three blocks of 20 minutes. The women’s team will play Bristol University Women’s Rugby Football Club this weekend, in what will be a challenging test against a strong rugby side ahead of The Varsity Matches in Leicester.
Although some match practice will be pivotal for OURFC in the lead-up to Varsity, there is little that can be done to prepare for playing in front of thousands of students.The change of venue from Twickenham to Leicester, due to “likely restrictions on numbers”, may be seen as a negative aspect of this year’s Varsity in the eyes of many, as the prestige of playing at Twickenham is arguably what makes The Varsity Matches so special. However, in the eyes of the players, there are also many positives to be taken out of not playing at the home of England Rugby and instead playing at the home of the Leicester Tigers, Smaller and more tightly packed, Mattioli Woods Welford Road stadium has a capacity of just over 25,000 and it has previously hosted Rugby World Cup games, as in 1999 and 1991. George Messum mentions how the stadium’s standing areas and “vertical” stands will bring a great atmosphere, whereas Hannah Cooper said the “crowd will feel much closer” and the pressure of playing at Twickenham will be removed from the match.
Instead of going to West London to watch the Dark Blues play in cold December weather, students and other interested watchers will be taking coaches to Welford Road in Leicester from Oxford. Tickets for the matches are still being sold on The Varsity Matches website. After what will hopefully be a successful shoeing-of-the-tabs for Oxford, much of the Oxonian crowds will be attending the “After Party” event at Park End, should the government approve Step 4 in time for the 4th of July.
As finalists get their exams done and COVID restrictions loosen, OURFC lead Oxford out of the academic year and into what will hopefully be the dawning of the post-pandemic world for the UK. George Messum discussed how this year’s historic Varsity Matches make it “a pretty special year to be involved with the club”, with the summer match being played in the middle of a pandemic and shortly after multiple squad members finished important exams. He reflected, “I think the hope is that in 5-10 years’ time, when the boys are doing their reunions, we will look back and think- wow, this is a pretty special year to be involved with the club.”
Image courtesy of OURFC