Keble stuff bears in Rugby Cuppers Final

Every year, three matches of Calcio Fiorentino – a bizarre and archaic type of football – take place in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce. The mini-tournament, featuring a team from each quarter of the city, attracts around 1500 Italian spectators who arrive keen to see choking, head-butting, and the other “assertive” tactics that the rules of the game allow. The atmosphere goes beyond frenzied; it’s mania.

With its intimate capacity and partisan following, there is something similarly feverish about this fixture. Admittedly, it’s usually packed instead with well-mannered Oxonians – who are more likely to appear in Made in Chelsea than in the Chelsea Headhunters – but Iffley was nonetheless in a state of mayhem on May Day Eve.

The players, an elite few excepted, are unlikely to play in front of a crowd like this again. It might not be 80,000 anonymous faces at Twickenham but the burning desire to impress the entirety of a 1,000 strong peer-group is a different sort of pressure. To those who have never been, this will sound melodramatic; but don’t be mistaken, this game is big. And no Cuppers Final is bigger than Keble vs. Teddy Hall at Iffley.

The 2015 edition featured the same teams as the 2013 final when, in an ill-tempered contest, the Hall battered their way to a 27-17 victory. Keble’s revenge In this match was ultimately emphatic, their 37-11 winning margin a reflection of a dominant second-half display. The monstrosity of Hall’s pack, containing Blues players Fergus Taylor and Fraser Heathcote, could easily have cowed Keble but their victory was built upon a set-piece that became increasingly dominant throughout the match. In particular, Will Mason – weighing in 43kg lighter than Taylor, his opposite man – gave a badger-like performance that proved size doesn’t matter.

The monstrosity of Hall’s pack included Blues players

If the winning margin was comfortable, the early hits sustained by the Keble pack were anything but. As nerves simmered, the cavernous hands of Hall’s forwards proved a safe route over the gain-line, with Taylor used consistently and effectively as a human cannonball. A penalty from Tom Dwyer soon converted their early pressure into points.

However, Keble’s response was full of guts. Twice turning down kicks at goal, a perfectly executed catch-and-drive saw Jonathan Mitchell, their captain, rumble over to assert a lead that they never relinquished.
IMG_5418 - Version 2In a high-pressure environment, Keble’s ambition was admirable and their second try epitomised their adventure. Sharp offloads from centres Garvey and Cox drew in the Hall defence before the ball was fizzed out wide to winger Steinert, who steamed over from 15 yards to finish a fine team move. It was thrilling rugby at its fluid best.

By now, the blood was pumping in the Iffley onlookers. The stands rattled under the strain of an impressive repertoire of naughty numbers, and some provocative Hall banners only served to ramp up the tension. “Keble racists” was slanderous and “Keble: Oxford’s biggest crack den” was, at best, only half-true.

As the first half drew to a close, an intercept try from Jack Calvert reflected an even first forty minutes, reducing Hall’s arrears to 12-8 at the break.

That late blemish appeared to rally Keble’s men. If the first half was trench warfare, then the second was a siege. Pinned back by Blues captain Jacob Taylor’s imperious kicking display and a malfunctioning line-out, the Hall were starved of territory. To make matters worse, Keble prop Paul Childs began to perform a convincing impression of Andrew Sheridan circa 2007, turning Hall’s front-row into scrum-crumble

The Reds’ backline now had the front foot, and a sniper-like finish from David Peberdy preceded the final twist; the unleashing of Keble’s trump card. Samson Egerton has recently finished a glittering season at Yorkshire Carnegie in the English Championship, and is set to embark on a glamorous career of global tourism with England Sevens. Teddy Hall had done an impressive job of containing the scrum-half in the first period, but brilliance only needs a moment to make a memorable impact. From an innocuous position on the 40-metre line, Egerton spotted a route through the defensive hallway. After a shimmy and a shake, Keble were on top and out of sight.

A pick-and-go try from centre Oakley Cox sealed Keble’s 12th Cuppers triumph, which sparked a delirious pitch invasion. A better side had humbled the Hall, but their players should be proud of their efforts nonetheless. Respect is due to any side who makes it through a physical and psychological test that stands apart from the daily dosage of Oxford life. 2015, however, was Keble’s year; and even rumours of a mislaid trophy are unlikely to dampen their euphoria.

The break-down:

Keble: 37 (Tries: Mitchell, Steinert, Peberdy, Egerton, Cox; Penalties: Taylor (2); Conversions: Taylor (3))

St Edmund’s Hall: 11 (Tries: Calvert; Penalties: Dyer (2))