On the night when Nani’s red card against Real Madrid threatened to overshadow football’s biggest showcase of the season thus far, the centrepiece of the college rugby year was dominated by a trigger-happy referee who deemed it necessary to hand out 5 yellow cards, a red and a gazillion penalties. This is to take nothing away from St. Edmund’s Hall’s dominant performance, who deservedly retained the trophy 27 points to 17, defeating 2012/13 League Champions Keble in the process.
In many ways it was set up to be the perfect cup final. Oxford’s two dominant sides of the past decade or so going head to head, their fierce rivalry matched by the vociferous support of nearly 1,000 students as the league champions sought to dethrone the Hall as cup holders. José Mourinho told us that the world would be watching Old Trafford but in typically self-centred fashion he must have forgotten that tonight was Cuppers Final night.
So for all its potential as a showdown between two rugby powerhouses, for once neither depleted by the absence of Blues stars, it was a shame that for no more than 10 minutes were we entertained to 15 against 15 as ill-discipline rather than Blues call-ups robbed us of the ultimate head-to-head.
Having gone the season undefeated and blitzed most of their opponents on the way to League glory and the Cup final, Keble would have started the match with confidence and perhaps as favourites and it did not take them long to open the scoring, with fly-half Charlie King calmly slotting through a penalty almost straight from the kick-off. But from then their cup hopes began to unravel as hot-headedness got the better of them. What may have particularly disappointed the league champions was the fact that it was their University players who fell foul of the referee’s notebook, with first Matt Craggs and then Dan Barnes sin-binned within the first ten minutes. In the heat of a cup final the referee could have been more lenient, Craggs sin-binned for Keble’s first offence of the game, but equally with Hall on the front foot and quick ball on Keble’s five-metre line, the lock cynically came in from the side to disrupt the attack. Roy Keane ignited the ire of Man United fans after the Madrid game by saying that Nani had given the ref the opportunity to send him off; the same could be said for all of Keble’s punishments.
In the meantime, Keble’s scramble defence was able to keep Hall at bay but hooker Barnes’ yellow for kicking the ball away left their scrum at the mercy of a dominant Hall pack, whose pressure finally told as they rumbled over with no.8 Fraser Heathcote giving them a 5-3 lead. Indeed Hall’s dominance at scrum-time was beginning to resemble England’s dismantling of the Ireland scrum in last year’s Six Nations, but Keble left ex-New Zealand U20 and Blues prop Jon Direen on the bench, admirably retaining faith in the front row that had served them with dedication all season.
As the Hall pack ratcheted up the pressure on their opponents, their supporting ‘musician’ ratcheted up his incessant drumming, treating the crowd to his full repertoire of loud and even louder mindless drum-thwacking. Like their drummer, the Hall pack saw no need for sophistication and put their power to good use to score their second try from a driving-maul, from which Heathcote again emerged with the ball.
In fairness the Keble support was no more imaginative, responding to Hall taunts with the witty riposte of ‘KEEEEBLE!’ But no one could fault the decibel levels and the crowd’s passion was certainly feeding its way through to the players. Despite seeing less of the ball than Macclesfield Town might expect to against Barcelona, Keble used it effectively when they had the chance and with what seemed like their first foray into their opponents half since King’s penalty, they manufactured what the stadium announcer described as a ‘sumptuous try’, with good line-out ball and a mini-break from King providing centre Talfan Evans with a clear run to the line.
But having dragged themselves level, a further yellow, this time for Duncan Bucknall for stopping a promising Hall attack by virtue of being offside, pinned them back once more after David Cooper-Hall knocked over the three points from the ensuing penalty. This time the yellow seemed particularly harsh, with Bucknall only marginally over-eager with his line speed before delivering a tackle worthy of one of the many ‘rugby’s greatest hits’ compilations on YouTube. The referee’s hand was perhaps forced by his own strict standards.
If Keble were hoping that the second half would allow them to compete on equal terms, however, they were to be sorely disappointed. Craggs was sent off for a second yellow following a spear tackle, before the referee sought reconciliation with the Keble fans for sin-binning fly-half Harry McClelland for his reaction. Things went from the ridiculous to the absurd for the side now deprived of their titanic lock as Varsity Man of the Match Samson Egerton was binned, leaving Keble to compete with just 13 players for ten minutes.
Hall made their numerical advantage count with scores from centres Oscar Vallance and Jack Calvert to put the game seemingly out of Keble’s reach at 27-10. But the return of Egerton and the introduction of the powerful Direen instilled renewed vigour into the Keble side, who for the first time in the match began to exert considerable pressure on their opponent’s defence.
Their efforts were rewarded as Direen charged over to reduce the deficit to just ten points with twenty minutes left on the clock and roared on by an ever raucous crowd, Keble to their credit continued to push and had a try disallowed for a forward pass. But Egerton’s dancing feet were unable to reduce the deficit any further and Teddy Hall ran out deserved winners 27-17.
Frankly that represented a considerable effort on the part of the Keble defence, who were under the cosh for most of the game. The stadium announcer revealed that Hall had enjoyed 75% of the possession whilst Keble had conceded 47 penalties. Whether those statistics were fabricated or not, they certainly provided a reasonable reflection on the way the game had gone and marked a dramatic turnaround from Keble’s drubbing of Hall in the league.
Asked to explain the change in his side’s fortunes, the victorious captain Hector Bagley said, ‘I think it’s an ethos. We’ve been training two times a week for the past four weeks and we’ve really bonded as a side. Our socials have been unbelievable and we really put our bodies on the line, more than Keble were. They’ve got more Blues and Whippets, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter it’s a team effort.’
Keble’s team effort was limited by the fact they rarely had a full team on the pitch, but their spirit and commitment was evident throughout, playing at their best when the game was seemingly out of reach.
So at the end of the season, the rugby spoils were shared between the two rivals and given time it is unlikely that either side will have any qualms about that outcome. Keble had been the dominant side throughout the league season but had been outmuscled on the day by a powerful Hall pack, who had bulldozed their way to a second successive cuppers title.