Blues 15 (Tries: Lamont, Hudson; Conversion: Marr; Penalty: Marr); Russia 29 (Tries: Tsnobiladze, Temnov, Garbuzov, Simplikevich (x2); Conversions: Klyuchnikov (x2))
The men’s rugby Blues had plenty to be proud of after losing out to the Russian national team in a tightly-contested match at Iffley Road. When a university of 15,000 students takes on a country of 150 million people in any sport, the latter’s victory might seem assured, but the Blues acquitted themselves well and were arguably the better side in a close first half. Only in the second period did the Bears’ physicality begin to impose itself, as a tiring Oxford struggled to match their opponents’ pace and power.
Bears coach Kingsley Jones, a former Wales international, bemoaned Russia’s harsh winters, which precludes them from hosting November internationals, but his players must have felt at home on a cold day more reminiscent of dreary steppes than dreaming spires. After the national anthems of Russia, surely one the world’s most evocative, and the UK had been played, the visitors burst out of the traps, finding touch from an early penalty and driving Valery Tsnobiladze over the line from the resulting line-out. The try was converted by Igor Klyuchnikov, handing Russia a 7-0 lead inside two minutes.
But the Blues were not cowed against a team which played Australia and Ireland at last year’s World Cup. Led by captain John Carter, a hulking number 8 who is either taking Movember far too seriously or whose fashion icon is Sébastien Chabal, the Blues enjoyed a territorial advantage for much of the first half, but struggled to break down an organised Russian back line. Russia’s main threat was the blistering pace of Denis Simplikevich, who was twice denied a clear run at the try-line, firstly by an excellent tackle by Jason Law, and then at the expense of a penalty by Carter.
Inspiration came from Cassian Bramham-Law, breaking from half-way to realise Heewon Cho, who dodged two Russia players before his try was converted by fly-half Charlie Marr. Russia, clearly determined for revenge, regained the lead with an Andrey Temnov try, before Marr’s penalty brought the score to 12-10 at half-time. Oxford were down, but not out, and could have entered the break in front if Marr, playing his first match in a year after injury, had scored any of three missed penalties, the most spectacular of which hit the post from 50 yards.
If the first half was more of a slugfest, largely played out between the two sides’ 45-yard lines, the second was a more open, fluent, and attacking affair. Within ten minutes of the restart, the score had moved to 24-15, with Henry Lamont reducing the deficit after tries from Andrey Temnov and for Simplikevich after a mesmerising sla
lom run. Winger Simplikevich swiftly added a deserved second try after evading a tackle from the impressive Blues scrum-half Sam Egerton, but the game’s final quarter saw no further score, with Blues coach James Wade delving into his replacements as he considers his selection for next month’s Varsity match at Twickenham.
The final score was no disgrace for the Blues, and despite prolonging their wait for this season’s first win, on today’s evidence Oxford will look forward to Varsity with optimism. Hooker Nick Gardner was named man of the match, and few could criticise the way he handled Russia’s front row, who took on tyros like Australia’s Stephen Moore little over a year ago.
The Blues were vociferously applauded by the several hundred spectators at Iffley Road, but perhaps the most noticeable supporters were four Russian students, draped in flags and cheering on their team. Anna Danshina, an MPhil student at St Antony’s, spoke of her pride on seeing the Bears’ improvement with rugby such a minority sport in Russia. With players and fans leaving the ground to celebrate Russia’s Unity Day, the Bears will welcome back Northampton Saints winger Vasily Artemyev for their upcoming matches against the USA and Canada. However, Danshina and her friends apologetically declared it ‘highly unlikely’ that they’d follow the side to Colwyn Bay.
The Maori All Blacks face Canada in the next international match at Iffley Road on 23 November. Tickets are priced at just £5 for students.
PHOTO/ SAM CHEAM