Stylish Oxford take the spoils

Committed in defence and potent in attack, Oxford were deserving victors in the 129th Varsity match at Twickenham. A crowd of just over 27,000 witnessed them run out clear winners, with two first-half tries followed up by a sterling defensive effort in the second period. The game opened cagily, with both sides failing to make much headway in the face of well-organised defences, and it wasn’t until the 20th minute that the first points were scored, Dark Blue fly-half Charlie Marr kicking off what was a good day with the boot for him with a penalty. The lack of clear try-scoring opportunities in the first quarter was not for any lack of ambition, with both sides running the ball on a chilly but dry winter afternoon.

Oxford generally looked the more dangerous with ball in hand, offloading out of the tackle and running onto the ball from deep to punch holes in the Cambridge defensive line. This superiority was finally manifested just after they took the lead; from the restart they made headway down the left, and a nifty reverse-flick from captain and scrum-half Nick Haydon opened a gap for Luke Jones to burst through. With the defence sucked inside, Oxford moved the ball right, and inside-centre Alex Cheesman crashed past the last defender to touch down, Marr adding the conversion.

Cheesman was the stand-out in an impressive Oxford three-quarter line; when they surged forward once more from the restart, his offload almost set Jones free, but the ball was lost forward. With Oxford starting to look unstoppable, Light Blue scrum half Chris Hunt lost his head, and the ball, after an ill-advised tap penalty. The mistake was punished, as Marr’s long pass, almost an interception, found Cheesman, who evaded his pursuer and sprung the overlap, which saw full-back James Crozier cross over in the left corner. Marr’s missed conversion was the only blip on his kicking record throughout. Cambridge showed spirit to fight back in the remaining minutes, and were rewarded on the stroke of half-time, winning a penalty in the Dark Blue 22, which full-back James Richards slotted to reduce the deficit to twelve.

The second half mostly belonged to Cambridge, who looked a different team on the resumption. A bullocking run from No.8 Ben Maidment set up a penalty which was kicked to the corner. Their failure to capitalise on the opportunity, penalised at the line-out for driving in, was later identified by their coach Tony Rodgers as a key moment. They continued to enjoy long stretches of possession and territory, but moving the ball laterally were mostly unable to find gaps in the well-drilled Dark Blue defence. They were also kept honest by Oxford’s enterprising back-row, who several times turned the ball over to frustrate Cambridge. The Light Blues were also eminently capable of frustrating themselves, and a string of handling errors hamstrung their attacking efforts. They finally found some joy in the scrum, where they dominated throughout; after a run from increasingly prominent left-winger Richard Stevens, they earned a penalty on the Oxford 5. After the third successive infringement by the Dark Blue pack, referee Andrew Small awarded a penalty try, which Richards converted to bring Cambridge within five points. They were soon pegged back again, as their fly-half Greg Cushing, who had a difficult afternoon, sliced his clearance into touch, giving Oxford a platform which eventually led to another penalty for Marr.  Still, the Light Blues continued to press Oxford in the final 20 minutes, with both Stevens and Cherezov coming off their wings, where they saw little ball, to good effect. An inability to find the killer pass or offload, and an undercurrent of unforced errors, meant their attempts to breach the Oxford line in open play came to nothing. As their coach admitted afterwards, “Oxford won the collisions, they took the ball forward very well and their scramble defence was very good. They deserved to win.” Victorious captain Nick Haydon paid tribute to Oxford coach Murray Henderson, who stayed with the team despite a recent family bereavement: “Murray came on board this year and there have been some big changes at the club. It’s very satisfying to put on a performance like that for Murray and the coaches.’