Oxford put in disciplined performance to beat Cambridge 21-10 at Twickenham in the Varsity Match.
Oxford 21- 10 Cambridge
A determined second-half fightback from Cambridge failed to stop the Dark Blues from completing a comfortable 21-10 victory, only their second Varsity win in the last 6 years.
The absences of Sandy Reid and Dan Vickerman proved telling, as The Light Blues’ backs and forwards often appeared devoid of leadership and direction.
Their opponents, on the other hand, marshalled by the impressive Nick Haydon at scrum-half, delivered a clinical and organised performance to carve out a convincing victory.
The game began tentatively, as both sides made handling errors that unfortunately were to pervade the match.
The physicality and commitment of the teams was, however, never in doubt, as both sets of forwards fought viciously for superiority at the breakdown.
The first 20 minutes saw the sides separated by a single penalty, courtesy of the calm boot of Charles Marr, as Oxford led 3-0.
However, the game was brought into life by the vision of Haydon, unleashing a move down the blind-side. With the Cambridge defence stretched, Oxford seized upon the opportunity, hurling the ball to powerful centre Alex Cheesman, who is hoping to take up a contract with professional outfit London Wasps next year.
Cheeseman simply shrugged off a despairing tackle from Rob Stevens to dive over for the score. With the conversion slotted over Oxford, seemingly from nowhere, had an imposing 10-0 lead.
Cambridge looked shocked, and failed to strike back quickly and regain the momentum. Oxford on the other hand were precise and efficient. Barely five minutes later Oxford struck again, turning over a quickly taken penalty by Sam Hunt and unleashing the backs.
Sensing the danger, Burdon took a risk and burst from the defensive line, but failed to bring down the powerful Cheesman, who was able to off-load to Crozier, who gratefully ran in for a simple score.
Although the conversion was missed, at 15-0 Cambridge were desperately in need of a foothold in the game. Awarded a penalty 40 yards out, Richards made a horrible mess of the kick, and Cambridge spirits visibly sank.
With half-time near, the forwards began to assert their superiority at the scrum, winning several penalties as a result. Sustained pressure on the Oxford line eventually resulted in a simple penalty opportunity for Richards, who gratefully accepted. Nevertheless, with the scoreline at 15-3, it was clear Cambridge had to dig deep in the second half.
It was Oxford however who began positively, attacking the line at pace and posing problems for the Cambridge defence.
The Light Blues refused to buckle, their tenacity in the contact area eventually forcing a turnover. Finally, they began to string some phases together, but handling errors from Cushing and Loudon undermined their attacking intent.
A darting break from Stevens and good off-loading saw them perilously close to the Oxford line, and with penalty advantage beckoning, the ball was flung wide for what seemed a glorious try, only to be disallowed for a forward pass by captain Richards.
The Cambridge forwards however sensed blood, and ramped up the pressure in the resulting scrums. Oxford’s repeated collapsing led the referee to awarded a penalty try, easily converted by Richards.
Cambridge’s front row out performed their Dark Blue opposite numbers – the tight three of Niall Conlon, Stuart Brown and Jamie Gilbert, dominated Oxford in the scrum compartment throughout. Indeed the scrum proved to be Cambridge’s most potent weapon on the day.
With the match tantalisingly poised at 15-10, Cambridge sensed an opportunity, and played their best rugby of the match. Burdon in particular always threatened in the centres, running excellent lines and remaining strong in the tackle.
Again, however, they were let down by simply, unnecessary mistakes, with fly half Greg Cushing, after excellent performances in recent weeks, failing to keep his composure under pressure. Jimmy Richards mixed flashes of brilliance with uncharacteristic mistakes, and after he ran riot last year Oxford marked him well this time around, a tactic that paid off.
The Cambridge crowd were cheered up considerably however, when a presumably cold streaker wearing a Cambridge scarf cavorted around the pitch for a good couple of minutes, much to the amusement of the players. The stewards, to the streakers surprise, seemed to do absolutely nothing, and after a couple of lengths of the field, presumably a bit tired and cold, the streaker took himself off, almost handing himself into the Twickenham security.
After play resumed, however, an Oxford penalty left Cambridge 10 minutes in which to score twice, and with time running out their play became increasingly desperate.
Stevens made another break down the left wing, but after encouraging build-up play a poor pass was thrown and the ball was lost. Oxford were able to keep possession in the final minutes, scoring another penalty kick from the calm boot of Marr, who managed his backs excellently throughout the game.
With the match ebbing away, the Light Blues suffered the blow of Gilbert suffering a fractured ankle, and after a strong performance from the Cambridge hooker it was a shame to see him leave the field before the conclusion.
As the clock edged over 80 minutes, it was fittingly left to Haydon to crash the ball out of play to seal his side’s deserved victory, having played and led excellently throughout the match.
Oxford celebrate their win. Photos by Tim Sherrington.
A disappointed Cambridge side will reflect ultimately on what might have been. In truth, Oxford won the battle at the breakdown, were given better structure by their half-backs, and executed their chances more clinically than Cambridge.
Tom Harrington and Ben Maidment put in strong performances, but in open play the other forwards were quiet in comparison to their opposite numbers. Whilst Haydon and Marr controlled the structure of the Oxford game and kicked intelligently from hand, Cambridge’s half-backs were unable to impose themselves upon the match.
The backs undoubtedly missed Sandy Reid, but were given few opportunities to express themselves in open play and run some of the moves that have been so successful throughout the season.
Man of the Match, Dark Blue Number 8 Stan McKeen dominated the breakdown alongside his flankers, and particularly in the first half, Cambridge saw very little ball. The back-line in particular seemed to lack a figure to lead as Cheesman did for Oxford, and Loudon, through no fault of his own, looked out of position at inside centre.
It was ultimately however a strong performance from Oxford, and too many silly mistakes, that cost Cambridge the match. Richards tried manfully from full-back, but was unable to have the same influence he had on last year’s match. Cambridge were unable to take their chances and capitalise on their possession in the second half, and will now rue what could have been.
In the post match press conference Cambridge coach Tony Rogers and Captain Jimmy Richards were extremely downbeat. Richards said that the loss was ‘heartbreaking’, although he added that his team ‘never stopped believing’. Rogers on the other hand lamented that Oxford ‘won the majority of the collisions’ adding that ‘silly mistakes meant we could not play as we can do’. Both graciously consented that Oxford were the better team and deserved their win.
Oxford Captain Nick Haydon was, on the other hand, predictably bullish. He told the press that although they had had less good results throughout the season, ‘we had played harder teams, but that only meant we were more prepared, and it showed.’ Haydon gave the press an insight into the Oxford mindset before the games, saying: ‘we knew we were the underdogs, but that only enabled us to pull together better so we could express ourselves more.’
Oxford coach Murray Haydon also emphasised Oxford’s ‘team spirit’, and although his contract has expired with Oxford, he confirmed that he wants to return for next year.
Alex Cheeseman, after the game, fuelled speculation about his future, saying: ‘I’d like to become a professional when I’ve finished at university. I was with Wasps’ academy before I went to university and I had a stint at Sale Sharks last season. But I’m going to train with Wasps in the summer with a view to something next season. They are my local club and I support them.’
Wasps head coach Shaun Edwards, who was watching in the stands however, refused to speak about any future contracts with any player.
Oxford wore black armbands as a tribute to Peter Henderson, father of head coach Murray, who died in New Zealand last week. ‘It was very satisfying to put a performance out like that for the coaches, especially Murray,’ said Nick Haydon in his final words before he started celebrating with his team.
In the other match of the day, the Light Blue 21s beat their Oxford counterparts 20-5 in a commanding performance.