Despite good form in the build-up to Twickenham, the Light Blues go in to the Varsity Match as clear underdogs against an Oxford team chasing a seventh straight success
Records are there to be broken and Cambridge University will draw comfort from current form as they attempt to end an unprecedented run of six Oxford University victories in the 135th Varsity Match on Thursday.
The Light Blues go into the Twickenham encounter on the back of successive wins against Crawshay’s, Coventry, Durham and a Steele-Bodger’s XV. With Fraser Gillies, a former age-grade cap who led Edinburgh Academy to the Scottish Schools Cup in 2010, pulling the strings at fly-half, they have racked up more than 25 points on each occasion.
At full-back is Charlie Amesbury, who joins the list of professional players to have won a Blue. The former England Sevens international is doing a two-year Masters degree in social innovation and has taken a two-month sabbatical from his club Bristol to compete in a match with additional personal meaning – two of his great-uncles played for Oxford in the fixture in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I play better when I’ve got something else going on in my life,” Amesbury, 30, told the Bristol Post. “Since arriving at Cambridge the emphasis has largely been on the academic work, but it’s something I’m enjoying.
“If I can have a quiet game and the rest of the boys have the game of their lives then that would be perfect for me. It is a big thing for Cambridge, the university and the city, to try and get this win.
“The pressure is all on Oxford because they have won so many times, it is on them to lose it. We are just going to go out there and play some good running rugby.”
One of nine new Blues chosen by Cambridge coach James Shanahan, Amesbury follows in the footsteps of Jamie Roberts, the Welsh Lion who was forced off with a dead leg in last year’s meeting and watched his side succumb 12-6 – the first try-less Varsity fixture in 14 years.
Oxford, who will field eight of last year’s starting XV, opted for a more demanding build-up under coach James Wade. They have played four Premiership clubs in Northampton, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester, losing each time, while a trip to Zagreb brought a 45-7 win over Croatia.
Skipper Fergus Taylor, 24, says recent Varsity results are irrelevant as Oxford seek to extend their winning record to a magnificent seven.
“The pressure for us is not to be complacent – we have won six games in a row because we have a template that is successful,” he said, something a previous captain, Jacob Taylor, spoke about in 2014.
“It is about recognising that every year is new. We have to keep building from a fresh start and the only pressure on us is not to take anything for granted. We’ve got depth across the park, some key experience and some good players running the side.”
Both universities have a ‘six and out’ policy on the number of Blues one player can win – three as an undergraduate and three as a post-graduate.
So Lewis Anderson, the 26-year-old sociology student who last year became the first Oxford player to win six Blues, joining Cambridge’s former England international Herbert Fuller (1878-83) on that number, this year played in the second-team fixture that Oxford Greyhounds won 49-8. Cambridge prop Will Briggs will equal that record of six Blues this week.
The Man of the Match receives the Alastair Hignell medal and the former England full-back evoked a very different era when writing about his Varsity Match debut in 1974 in his autobiography and for Rugby World.
In the amateur days, even the warm-up matches attracted the national media and the Varsity Match was the pre-Christmas focal point of a season devoid of autumn Internationals.
Hignell, who got into the Gloucestershire team on the back of his efforts for Cambridge, recalls the motivational powers of Light Blues coach Ian Robertson, who would tell the team ahead of club games: “You are, by virtue of the fact you’re studying at Cambridge, in the top one per cent of the brightest people in the country.
“They (whoever the opposition were that day) are not only older and slower than you, they are thicker! All you have to do is go out and make them look as stupid as they really are!”
Unfortunately for Cambridge, there is no age or intellect advantage to be gained on Thursday and the odds lie firmly in favour of another Oxford triumph.
The 30th women’s Varsity Match, being played at Twickenham for only the second time, offers better portents for Cambridge following their 52-0 romp last year. But the Dark Blues will gain confidence from recent back-to-back wins against University of Gloucestershire (15-12) and Bristol University (21-12) in the BUCS Premier South division.
- The 135th Varsity Match (2.30pm) and the 30th Women’s Varsity Match (11.30am) between Oxford and Cambridge take place at Twickenham on Thursday 8 December. Click here to buy tickets.
15. Matt Geiger * (Manchester Grammar School & St Catherine’s)
14. Ed David * (Harrow School & St Hilda’s)
13. Henry Hughes * (Peter Symond’s College & Magdalen)
12. Alex Hogg (Whitgift School & Keble)
11. Tom Stileman * (Cranleigh School & St Peter’s
10. Basil Strang * (RGS Newcastle & St Stephen’s House)
9. Henry de Berker * (Cotham Comprehensive School & Green Templeton)
1. Kieran Ball * (Wellington College & Trinity)
2. Ed Hart (Berkhamsted School & St Edmund Hall)
3. Joe Morris (King Edward VI School, Aston & St Edmund Hall)
4. Fergus Taylor * (Sherborne School & St Catherine’s)
5. Andrew Grant * (The Oratory School & Kellogg)
6. Nic Roberts-Huntley * (Blundell’s School & Green Templeton)
7. George Blomfield (Brisbane Grammar School & Kellogg)
8. Will Wilson * (Wellington College & Keble)
16. Will Thornton (Sedbergh School & Lady Margaret Hall)
17. James Scaife * (Altrincham Grammar School & Linacre)
18. Hugo Lu (Reading School & Trinity)
19. Jonathan Marsden (The King’s School, Macclesfield & Christ Church)
20. Graeme MacGilchrist * (George Watson’s College & University)
21. James Beaufils (St John Bosco College, Engadine & Jesus)
22. Tom Kershaw (Portsmouth Grammar School & Worcester)
23. Conor Kearns (Glenstal Abbey School & Somerville)
15. Charlie Amesbury (Lord Wandsworth College & Queens’)
14. Simon Davies (Latymer Upper School & Jesus) *
13. Rory Triniman (Canford School & Hughes Hall)
12. Michael Phillips (Bedford Modern School & Emmanuel) *
11. Henry King (Chipping Campden School & St Catharine’s)
10. Fraser Gillies (Edinburgh Academy & Hughes Hall) *
9. Sebastian Tullie (Bradford Grammar School & Emmanuel) *
1. William Briggs (Bedford School & Magdalene) *
2. Andrew Burnett (RGS High Wycombe & Jesus)
3. Jonathan Dixon (Royal School, Armagh & Downing)
4. Andrew Hunter (Cranbrook School & St Edmund’s)
5. Tim Bond (Watford Grammar School & Pembroke)
6. Tom Stanley (St Andrew’s College, Christchurch & Magdalene)
7. Brian Du Toit (The King’s Hospital, Dublin & St Edmund’s)
8. Daniel Dass (Belfast Royal Academy & St Catharine’s, captain) *
16. Simon Hugkulstone (Whitgift School & Wolfson)
17. Henry Somers (Silverdale School & Hughes Hall)
18. Demitri Moros (Hampton School & St John’s)
19. Lola Erogbogbo (Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School & Clare) *
20. Richard Bartholomew (Berkhamsted School & Jesus) *
21. Chris Bell (St Paul’s School & Girton)
22. Lare Erogbogbo (Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School & Jesus)
23. George Griffiths (Adams’ Grammar School & St John’s)
* Denotes Blue