The Varsity Match has always been a special occasion.
Not least because of the tradition of the fixture – which dates back to only a year after the first ever rugby international – but also the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that comes with a roster of international talent being drawn to this historic match.
Names like Tony Underwood, Rob Andrew, Gavin Hastings and more recently Australians Joe Roff and Dan Vickerman and All Black Anton Oliver have ‘furthered their studies’ at either Oxford or Cambridge University and been part of this time-honoured rugby rivalry in the process.
This year’s match more than lived up to this billing in terms of rugby pedigree; on this occasion it was the turn of Cambridge to boast the international talent as the sizeable frame of Welsh centre Jamie Roberts, studying for his Masters at Queen’s College, lined up in the Light Blue midfield.
One for the record books too, as Oxford sealed a sixth successive win – the first time in the fixture’s history that this has been achieved.
And it was a historic day for the women’s game as they were granted their long awaited time in the sun. Nor did the first Women’s Varsity Match to be held at Twickenham disappoint, as the ladies demonstrated some excellent offloading to keep the game ticking at a high tempo. Cambridge dominated possession and territory and were able to convert this into two well-worked first half tries, though full-back Alice Middleton and winger Lara Gibson, with Middleton adding the extras for a 14-0 lead at half time.
Cambridge’s systems continued to work in the second half as some robust defence starved Oxford of any constructive ball. Oxford’s own defence was poor and the Light Blue backs enjoyed a huge amount of space to run as a result. Flanker Chloe Withers touched down shortly after the break, Middleton crossed for her second and 12 Anna Wilson also made her mark on the game in the same way as Roberts would hope to, making some strong runs through the Oxford defence and grabbing a hat-trick. Middleton capped off her ‘player of the match’ performance with her own hat-trick and four second half conversions to bring her personally tally to 27 and see the Light Blues home to a resounding 52-0 win.
Over to the men then, and, while the star of the 2013 British and Irish Lions Tour stole the pre-match limelight, another player who graced the hallowed Twickenham turf yesterday deserves the plaudits.
Lesser-known but undeniably a recent hero of the fixture, Oxford loosehead prop Lewis Anderson made his sixth appearance in the fixture, equalling a record almost 125 years old. That Oxford’s winning streak began when Anderson made his debut in 2010, and has continued through those five previous outings, cannot be a coincidence and Anderson claimed his own exclusive record today as he became the first player in the Varsity Match’s history to win six times.
Oxford centre Henry Lamont carried arguably the biggest burden of the day, with the unenviable task of going up against Roberts in the centres. Standing at a mere 5ft8, Lamont is better known for searing down the wing than bludgeoning his way through the centres but such is the prowess of the chemistry student on the field that he was also handed the matchday captaincy at the 11th hour due to Club Captain George Messum’s course being deemed ineligible.
In an unfortunate twist for Lamont, he fell foul of a Roberts run in the opening minutes and was unable to continue, so Oxford played the vast majority of the game without their captain.
Oxford spent the early exchanges on the back foot and it was some resilient defence that kept Cambridge at bay. Indeed the Light Blues consistently broke the gainline (through Roberts and others) but were unable to capitalise on this advantage. Rather it was Oxford who took the first opportunity when awarded a penalty on the Cambridge 10m line, fly-half George Cullen opening the scoring. Cambridge scrum-half Don Stevens equalised 15mins before half-time.
The lineout was an area of weakness for Oxford, who let an excellent positional opportunity go begging in the second quarter but built a series of phases from the ensuing second attempt, resulting in Cambridge infringing at the breakdown.
Cullen’s second attempt went wide of the mark but Oxford were able to build a constructive passage of play in the Cambridge 22, second row Fergus Taylor and full-back Matt Geiger among the men making ground in an impressive series of 20 phases. Cambridge remained strong, however, eventually barrelling lock Andrew Grant into touch and breathing a sigh of relief five mins before the break.
A finely balanced half ended with an energy-sapping period, Oxford winger Tom Stileman offering the spark before the whistle with a run down the left flank only to be thwarted by the Cambridge cover.
Jamie Roberts didn’t come back onto the pitch for the second half due to a thigh injury and the Cambridge attack suffered as a result, while Stileman and Geiger worked well together to counter Cambridge’s kicking game. This allowed Oxford to gain ground early after the break through centre Matt Janney and no.8 Fraser Heathcote. Sniping runs too from scrum-half Henry de Berker challenged the Cambridge defence but a barrage of Oxford attacks returned minimal results as the score remained 3-3.
Anderson was unable to exert his dominance at scrum time, conceding a penalty from which Cambridge set up a strong position on the Oxford 22 and it was a fine tackle by Stileman on Cambridge full-back Simon Davies, followed by hurried defence that kept Cambridge from crossing. A penalty conceded at the ensuing lineout, however, gave the Light Blues their second opportunity at the posts and captain Stevens put his side in front for the first time in the match just before the 60minute mark.
Cullen passed on the opportunity to draw even early in the final quarter, opting to kick for territory and Oxford built a strong drive from the ensuing lineout. Oxford put together an excellent passage of play, ignoring the advantage of Cambridge pulling down the maul, to give Geiger the opportunity to go over in the corner, only for the full-back to spill over the line.
A more kickable opportunity then presented itself for Cullen to equalise and he duly obliged, bring the score to 6-6 with 12mins remaining.
Oxford’s back three then combined well to capitalise on a poor kick-chase and a Cambridge infringement allowed Cullen to his add to his tally and give Oxford the lead once more.
As the clock ticked down, Oxford hacked the ball ahead to give them the position they needed to wind down the game and the Dark Blues were gifted an extra man advantage when Cambridge full-back Simon Davies saw yellow for an over exuberant tackle.
Cullen drove a final nail into the Cambridge coffin with a fourth penalty in the dying minutes to secure the record-breaking sixth win.
After the game, man of the match Stileman commented, “It was absolutely incredible. The guys have put so much into this in the last few months. Credit should go to Cambridge because it was tough. I’m sure the celebrations now will be pretty emphatic!”
As for the two ‘stars’ of this epic encounter, Roberts will now be making the short journey over the road to The Twickenham Stoop and we have no doubt Harlequins will be desperate to learn of the severity of the hamstring strain.
Whatever road Lewis Anderson travels down on completion of his doctorate, you suspect his impressive personal record of six successive Varsity Match wins will stand the test of time.
Photo credits: Matt Henderson Photography