Tom Farmer reports from the 2023 Varsity Rugby Matches
There are few institutions which are as obsessed with the past and tradition in the same way that Oxford University tends to be. Rugby has a similar tendency to dwell on the past, meaning that ensuring the annual Rugby Union Varsity fixtures are something of a match made in heaven, with the strong alumni presence being a clear testament to this. With both the men’s and women’s fixture taking place on the same day, with this being the case for only the third time, the large crowd were in for a bumper day of rugby.
The women’s fixture has taken place since 1988, making this the 35th Varsity, and they came up first on Saturday. South-West London was under a slightly ominous grey tint, Cambridge kicked off in their iconic yet slightly questionable mint green kit, gathered safely by Chloe-Marie Hawley in Oxford’s more palatable dark-blue strip.
It was certainly a game of two halves. From the start, Cambridge looked by far the stronger team. With fly-half Phoebe Jackson dictating fluid play in the midfield, twinned with some huge hits from the pack in defence, Cambridge established themselves strongly in the opening encounters. This early pressure was rewarded when, after an Oxford knock-on, Cambridge No. 8 Rosemary Scowen picked-and-went from the back of the scrum. After a period of sustained pressure, scrum-half and skipper Emilia Bushrod drew first blood with a quick snipe, with a conversion sending Cambridge 7-0 up. Their opposite numbers in dark blue looked scrambling and disorganised in response to the Tabs’ seamless attacking play.
However, it didn’t take long for Oxford to strike back. Successfully blocking a Cambridge clearance, the Dark Blues pulled the ball wide and full-back Clodagh Holmes scored in the corner, her first try of the day. Yet, the Tabs clawed back a lead from when Emily Bell ripped the ball from Oxford’s Sophie Shams. After sustained pressure and a well-disguised tap-and-go penalty from Cambridge’s Jackson, prop Grace Izinyon ploughed over the line. The game was set at 12-5 to Cambridge, with half-time approaching.
The crucial action of the half, though, was yet to come. A high tackle on her opposite number earnt Cambridge winger Emily Bell a ten-minute trip to the sin-bin. Could Oxford capitalise with the extra man?
As the second half kicked off, this was answered very swiftly. After 4 minutes, expansive play from deep inside their own half led to a second Clodagh Holmes try, narrowing the score to 12-10. However, Oxford were a different team this half, utilising an off-load game that the Fijian 7s team would have been proud of. After a long period of pressure and two penalties, Oxford 9 Alex Wilkinson scored Oxford’s third try. After an impressive conversion from Iona Bennett, Oxford had the lead for the first time.
This lead kept on growing, with great footwork from Shams helping Clodagh Holmes complete her hat-trick, the whole move looking as if it had been taken straight from the training ground. 10 minutes later, Holmes added another with an incredible score. Picking up the ball in her own half, Holmes beat her opposite full-back and sprinted 40 metres to the line. With Oxford in full flow and Cambridge in disarray, the Dark Blues almost added a final flourish when fly-half Hawley picked up the ball ten metres into her own half, beat three players and touched the ball down on the line…only for the try to be disallowed.
Despite the dream ending being denied by a video replay, the day could not have gone better for the women. Winning the second half 26-0, captain Lauren Webb and her team had successfully defended their Varsity title. Despite a strong start from Cambridge, Oxford’s fluid backs and the player of the match performance from Clodagh Holmes ensured that Oxford started the day in winning ways.
After a sausage roll, swift pint of Guinness and wonder around the beautifully brutalist concourses of England’s national rugby ground, it was time for the Oxford men’s team to try and retain their title after last year’s victory.
Oxford started strong, with centres Liam Furniss and Harry Lincoln making successful gains and testing the Tabs early doors, but to no avail. 11 minutes in, Oxford were penalised for playing on the ground and Jamie Benson kicked took full advantage, sending the Light Blues 3-0 up. This lead didn’t last long, with Oxford responding with a penalty of their own to level up the game. As the half went on, Oxford were certainly the stronger team, with winger Tom Mewes looking lively down the right side. The Dark Blues were then inches from scoring the first try of the match with flanker Jack Glover being forced into touch just short of the try line. Equally close chances for Oxford followed, but they were unable to convert these opportunities into points.
Cambridge, less than five minutes later, showed their ability to do just that. Spotting a gap in the defence, centre Max Loveridge darted through and scored under the posts. With the simple conversion slotted easily, Cambridge were 10-3 up. Oxford responded quickly, scoring a try of their own only 4 minutes later. The lively Tom Mewes took an offload, perhaps inspired by the women’s side’s great offload game, and beat three men to score Oxford’s first try of the game. A conversion from scrum-half Vasco Faria ensured that scores would be level at half-time. In rugby, the adjective “atrittional” is often used as a synonym for “boring” and “dull”. This had certainly been the case for the first 40 minutes. In contrast, the openness of the women’s game earlier, there was little running rugby on show, with Oxford’s poor discipline (especially at the breakdown) thwarting any attempts at fast-paced attack. With the temperature beginning to drop ever-so-slightly, I was desperately hoping the game would pick up.
Six minutes into the second half, my prayers were answered. A wriggly, weaving run from Cambridge fly-half Jamie Benson put the Light Blues back ahead. Despite a missed conversion, the Tabs had a lead of 15-10, with Oxford having started the half in a lethargic manner. With 54 minutes gone, Cambridge went down to 14 for ten minutes. Would the men be able to take advantage of the numerical overlap as the women did earlier? Apparently not so when, whilst knocking at the Cambridge door, the hands weren’t tidy enough to capitalise on the Cambridge yellow card. The tables then turned in the 64th minute, when Oxford had a man yellow-carded. Five points and a forward down, Oxford had dented their chances of victory. The last 15 minutes of the game were tense and quite exciting, a break from what had been quite a dull exhibition of rugby. Yet, as had been the story of the game, Oxford kept the ball well but couldn’t break the Cambridge defence. With one last huge hit on Oxford’s Liam Furniss, a hit which Furniss will still be feeling, the ref blew his whistle. Cambridge retained their title.
As the barbour jackets and gilets filtered out of the ground, both sets of supporters had something to cheer about. for the neutrals, there was no greater winner of the day than the self-pouring Guinness machines.
Image Credit: Tom Farmer