Varsity Rugby: Cambridge men suffer 12-6 Oxford defeat

Paul Hyland 10 December 2015

In the first try-less Varsity Match since 2003, Cambridge found themselves on the wrong end of four George Cullen penalties, to cancel out two from their own captain Don Stevens. For the first time in over 140 years, Oxford have taken the title for the sixth time in a row.

The start of this match was strikingly similar to the women’s match earlier this afternoon, with the early stages fraught with frequent changes of possession and unfortunate individual errors. Cambridge certainly fancied their chances, though, when four minutes in, stand-in captain Henry Lamont, replacing George Messum disqualified on grounds of academic qualification, went off within a massive hit from Welsh international Jamie Roberts. It appeared to be a significant blow to Oxford hopes.  

But that’s not how it turned out. Cambridge back row, James Kilroe, found himself penalised for a dangerous challenge just over ten minutes into the match, needlessly giving Oxford the chance to take a narrow lead. George Cullen, the Oxford outside half whose kicking would be the recurring theme of the day, kept his cool, giving his Dark Blues lead that they absolutely deserved. 

It was the wake-up call Cambridge had been needing. They rushed back into game, with a chance to score a try on 15 minutes, which was kept out by what must have been feet from the line. Oxford’s defence, superb all day, held out long enough to see them awarded a scrum and breathe a huge sigh of relief. These were the sort of individual errors that characterised rest of the game, as every point on the board was scored from a penalty. Cambridge’s equaliser, on 24 minutes, came from an Oxford offside in a ruck, and captain Don Stevens put the Light Blues’ only meaningful opportunity high between the posts, to tie the game at 3-3.

Oxford could have taken the lead soon after the half=hour mark, with the Cambridge back line struggling to deal with a ball kicked in behind, resulting in third penalty of the match.  At just over the half-way line, George Cullen kicked far, but kicked wide, and squandered his chance to reinstate what would have been a deserved lead for Dark Blues.  

Five minutes later, Oxford second-row, Andrew Grant, had all but scored a try wide on the right, jumping into the corner only for Don Stevens to carry him out of play. The ball hit the ground, but just in touch, unbeknownst to the thousands of Oxford fans celebrating a try that never was. Cambridge were clinging on in a game that, unlike the early afternoon’s entertainment, had rather been one for the defenders. Oxford, for all of their superiority, couldn’t make the Cambridge half-time team talk any more difficult.  

Minutes before the second half kicked off, the Oxford team emerged from the tunnel early, taking the opportunity to huddle. A minute later, the Cambridge team emerged  themselves from the tunnel, this time without their talisman Jamie Roberts, whose dead leg was announced to the loudest roar of the afternoon so far from the Oxford faithful.  

'‘I couldn’t run, I had to come off,'’ Roberts told the post-match press-conference. '‘We can’t ask for more from the guys, and that’s rugby.  These boys kept fighting, we’re disappointed we couldn’t get the win.’'

Whether Roberts’ absence was the killer blow to Cambridge chances, we’ll never know, but it seemed initially to draw a fantastic response from the Light Blues. Impressive all day in the maul, they took advantage of a penalty to regain territory in the Oxford ‘22, and saw full-back Simon Rhodri Davies stopped just short of a try by last-ditch Oxford defending, with five points well in sight.  

The game turned swiftly in Cambridge’s favour.  A penalty on 57 minutes gave Don Stevens the chance to put Cambridge ahead for the first time in the match, an opportunity that was swiftly taken. Cambridge, despite chasing the game for much of the match, found themselves in the dizzying territory of a 6-3 lead.  

A 6-3 lead that didn’t last long.  Oxford’s fans were jubilant when full-back Matthew Geiger received the ball, unmarked, mere steps from scoring the try to make it 8-6 to Oxford.  Oxford jubilation immediately turned to ironic jeers from the Cambridge end, relieved to see Geiger inexplicably knock on. But play was brought back for an earlier foul, as for the second time in the match a Cambridge player failed to release in the tackle. Cullen’s equaliser for 6-6 was no more than Oxford deserved.  Nor, in fact, was his penalty on 74 minutes, which reinstated a slender lead for the Dark Blues.  

Cambridge surged back, as Davies’s runs out wide helped them sustain a short period of pressure, but four minutes from time, he found himself sin-binned, and effectively sent off, for an awful  aerial challenge on an Oxford player. Cullen’s kicking remained immaculate, as he scored from the resulting penalty, and with every Oxford point coming from a Cambridge foul, the Dark Blues ran out 12-6 victors.