In 140 years of competition a lot has changed in Rugby, Oxbridge and the world, but when Rob Malaney leads his Cambridge side out at Twickenham later today it will continue a rivalry just as raw, intense and significant as it was in 1872.
The match is almost as old as Rugby itself, and in recent times has featured legends of the game including Rob Andrew, Gavin Hastings and Aussie World Cup star Daniel Vickerman – who skippered the Light Blues to their last victory in 2009.
The 2012 match will feature an emerging legend of its own in Oxford’s returning captain John Carter. Looking like a cross between Jesus and Sebastien Chabal, Carter excelled last year despite a first half punch leaving him with a heavily swollen eye, and is sure to be seeking Cambridge blood once again.
Yet as England proved on Saturday teams led by a talisman named Carter can be beaten and the Light Blues should be confident after enjoying the stronger season of the two. After three early losses they won four of their next five games, and performed credibly in the other against a strong Saracens side, while Oxford failed to win their first seven and their two subsequent victories came only against somewhat limited opposition.
Captain Rob Malaney may have lost last year but he is not immune to Twickenham success after captaining his former university Durham to BUCS glory there two years ago. In the forwards his side is packed with experience; Malaney is one of four 2011 survivors, along with lock Scott Annett – a grizzled veteran of 56 caps – and the front-row pairing of Briggs and Brown. They are joined by a formidable postgraduate trio of Brakeley, Steele and Mallaband, while Hugo Kelly is rewarded with a starting birth after an excellent breakthrough season.
After suffering an early season disrupted by injuries the backs have improved rapidly and developed into an incisive attacking unit. At 9 and 10 Abraham and Tullie have garnered balance and understanding and will share the kicking duties with Rob Stephen – rumoured to be the first King’s Choral Scholar to play in Varsity. Aussie Dugal Bain will provide the big hits from midfield and will hope to share try-scoring duties with wingers Murdoch and Smith.
The other big change this year has been the appointment of Head Coach James Shanahan to what had previously been a Captain-run club, and the combined nous and leadership of Shanahan and Malaney – together with the depth and talent of the squad – may be enough to engineer a reversal of recent fortunes.
Ultimately however it is the performance on the day which matters, and with nine returning Blues and three new players with Premiership experience Oxford should be discounted only at Cambridge’s peril. Their team may have been playing down their chances, but these Roberto Mancini-ish mind-games should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Dark Blues are sure to revel in their underdog status.
Oxford currently lead the 2012 Varsity series 2-1 after wins in the Second XV and College XV matches. The Blues game will follow an Under 21s encounter where Cambridge will be determined to avenge last year’s defeat and set the tone for a day of success.
Whatever happens, it will be a day of sport at its most fierce, enthralling and unpredictable. The two teams are, for the most part, evenly matched. In the end, it will come down to who has the best tactics, the best condition and the biggest heart. Roared on by up to 30,000 fans, and with their every move followed by the Sky Sports cameras, lets hope it will be Rob Malaney and Cambridge who raise their game the most.
TCS Match Prediction: Cambridge by a score.
Cambridge Blues Team:
1) Will Briggs (Magdalane)
2) Paul Mallaband (Emmanuel)
3) Stu Brown (Clare)
4) Nate Brakeley (St Edmund’s)
5) Scott Annett (Clare)
6) Rob Malaney (St Edmund’s, Captain)
7) Hugo Kelly (St John’s)
8) Matt Steele (St Edmund’s)
9) Seb Tullie (Emmanuel)
10) Andrew Abraham (Homerton)
11) Will Smith (Girton)
12) Dugal Bain (Jesus)
13) Danny Holmes (Hughes Hall)
14) Andy Murdoch (Homerton)
15) Rob Stephen (Kings)
16) Rupert Cowan (Pembroke)
17) Nick Marshall (Trinity)
18) Frank Sanders (Magdalane)
19) Max Mather (Downing)
20) Ollie Wolfe (Christ’s)
21) Kristian Cook (Hughes Hall)
22) Ilia Cherezov (St John’s)
23) Kieran Hegarty (Fitzwilliam)