However else you decide whether Oxford or Cambridge is best, there is no doubt that the CU precursor gives Cambridge the upper hand when it comes to amusing acronyms. There is the well-named music society CUMS, as well as CULL and CUTE. Sadly the Cambridge University Netball Team, who undoubtedly have the most legitimate claim to the ultimate four letter acronym have chickened out and instead call themselves CULNC (Cambridge University Ladies Netball Club). There is no men’s side, so that ‘L’ is sheer distraction.
On a more practical level when it comes to netball facilities, Oxford have the advantage. For anyone who has been to the geriatric (in both appearance and odour) Iffley Road court, where one has to mop up drips from the incontinent roof, this may come as a surprise. However the great university of Cambridge which has had a netball team since it begrudgingly let ladies graduate in 1948 still has no netball court at all. Thus we gather today for the netball varsity match, the pinnacle of the netball year, not in a triumphantly bedecked netball Mecca, but several miles out of central Cambridge in a school sports hall – a primary school sports hall. The supporters, and there are hoards from both sides, are seating themselves uncomfortably on those little tiny plastic primary school chairs that are just that extra foot lower than an adult can anticipate when sitting down. Despite the bathos of the setting, the mood is jubilant as the dark blue Roos and the light blue Jays take to the court for the second team match accompanied by the deafening chant from the Oxford end of “Ooo.Uuu.Nnn.Ccc! O.U.N.C! Nnn.Ccc!”
Cambridge have the first centre pass and score despite immediate pressure from the Oxford WD Lourdes Webb. Oxford take the next centre and pass the ball easily down to the post but miss allowing Cambridge to pick up the rebound making it 2:0 to the home side. Oxford score the next four goals thanks to some co-ordinated defence by GD Grace Buck and GK Alisa Keyser but then Cambridge score the next four. Quarter time is called with the score a very tense 6:5 to Cambridge.
The score remains neck and neck in the second quarter with the shooters from both squads a little spooked and missing a few easy goals. With half a minute to go before half time, the crowd are raucously counting down the seconds, and Oxford take a quick centre pass, which loops over to WA Libby Stephens who is providing consistent support around the circle (she is later, deservedly voted the umpires’ player of the match). Stephens finds GS Annabelle Trotter on the circle edge, who holds her nerve, shooting a fantastically assured goal, which swoops through the net in the final second, allowing Oxford to inch ahead with a second crucial break, leaving the scores at 13:11 to Oxford as half time is called.
Oxford move ahead by one more goal in the third quarter after a stupendous interception from GD Grace Buck which allows GA Becky Waller to score despite increasingly physical play from the Cambridge defence. But then, good grief, half way through the final quarter Cambridge claw back the three goal difference leaving the scores at 25 all, with four and a half minutes to go. The crowd (with difficulty) have leapt out of their tiny seats and are cheering or jeering every pass, shot and tussle, such that the teams can hardly hear the umpires’ calls. I’m too caught up myself in yelling “COOOOMMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNNNNN OOOOOOOOOOOOOXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXFFFFFFFFFFFFFFOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD” to be able to say exactly what happened other than Oxford did something amazing, and when the final whistle blows four excruciating minutes later they are ahead by three goals again. The final score is 30:27 to the Oxford Roos, giving them their first varsity win in five years. It was a tremendous team performance under incredible pressure. The defence were brilliant, the centre court were brilliant (special mention to WD Laura Jenkins and C Charlotte Rogers) and my goodness, the shooters were brilliant. I imagine that the memory of those last few goals will wake them up sweating for years to come. There are a lot of tears from both sides. Man alive that was exciting.
With such a closely contested match several players from this large but close-knit squad stayed on the bench. Once recovered, Roos captain Becky Waller praised the fitness, fleet ball speed and utter commitment of the team but also that crucial support from the bench and emphasised how hard everyone had worked to make the win possible.
Before the supporters have had time to nurse their bleeding nail beds, the blues themselves are on court and are beginning the netball Haka, where both teams attempt to unnerve the opposition with the synchronicity and nonchalant complexity of their warm up routines. The dark blues look slick, and Cambridge must be feeling anxious as the teams assemble on side, as it’s clear from the line up that Oxford have a considerable advantage bookended as they are by two gigantic talents. The England and Hertfordshire Mavericks player Layla Guscoth is in defence whilst Natalie Redgrave, daughter of Sir Steve and therefore presumably at a considerable genetic advantage, is in at goal shooter.
But Cambridge are also very good. The standard of play is breathtaking and the first quarter is close. Oxford begin to edge ahead in the final minutes of the quarter with a series of breaks culminating in astronomically high feeds from C Charlie Warwick and WA Sascha Eady into GS Natalie Redgrave. Remarkably Redgrave manages to keep her hands on them despite being double marked, and inevitably scores, causing the crooners on the balcony to break into tuneful renditions of “Ouuuurrr giiiirl Redgraaaaaaaave, she scores when she wants”. Starting the second quarter with a lead of 16 to 12 the Oxford attack relaxes a little and spends more time working the ball into the shooters, making better use of WA Sascha Eady and GA Sarah Godlee who makes some deadly accurate long shots from the edge of the circle, to the appreciative chants of “That’s why she’s the captain! That’s why she’s the captain!”
With such consistent shooting from the attack on both sides, it’s in defence where the game is to be won, and here the duo of Layla Guscoth and Hattie Beaumont at GD and GK show the superiority of the dark blue side. Excellent communication despite the crowd noise means they have utter control of the circle, assisted by strong zone marking and committed defence down the length of the court. Layla Guscoth in particular is great. She punches the ball away from the Cambridge goal shooters and deflects direct shots at goal with incredible control which would have a lesser player repeatedly pulled up for contact or distance. In this way, despite excellent play from Cambridge the Oxford team slowly but incessantly pull ahead, finishing half time with a seven goal lead. In the third quarter Oxford bring on feisty shooter Holly Youlden, who maintains the attack’s exceptional 9 out of 10 goal scoring average. An ankle injury prompts Layla Guscoth to retire to GK but Hattie Beaumont at GD and excellent WD Emma McLaren are easily able to cover her and the dark blues continue to elegantly increase their lead, at one point scoring 7 consecutive goals in a row. By the time the final whistle blows they are ahead by 18 points, with the final score 53 to 35. Layla Guscoth is named the umpires’ player of the match, but after a season’s intensive training all together, the dark blue squad have achieved a state of netball nirvana when the team as a whole are even better than the sum of their individual parts.
In the minutes after the match I attempt to speak to new coach Trish Kilczynski, who is being heralded as the best coach ever. She is speechless. “I’m just completely speechless” she manages to say as she is smothered by various ecstatic squad members.
The following morning I catch up with jubilant squad captain Sarah Godlee, who after an evening of intense and emotional celebration is still dressed inexplicably as a bunch of grapes. “We all dreamed of a double win,” she says, “but it has actually happened! I am unbelievably proud of everyone. What an excellent squad performance from both Blues and Roos. All the hard work this year has paid off.”