A surfing fright lay behind the Dark Blues’ victory last year and the new skipper, Jacob Taylor is hoping for more of the same ahead of the Twickenham showdown
“Excuse me for being human,” tweeted England footballer Raheem Sterling after dropping out of a Euro 2016 qualifier because of fatigue a few weeks ago. It’s a tweet that would resonate with Jacob Taylor, the man charged, as Oxford University captain, with steering the Dark Blues to an historic feat in this year’s Varsity Match at Twickenham.
Never before have Oxford won five successive matches against their Cambridge counterparts, but that’s the prize on offer for Taylor following wins by 21-10, 28-10, 26-19 and 33-15, the last three of them coming under former Sale Sharks professional John Carter.
With Taylor away, Carter attended a publicity event recently at which he pinpointed the moment last year when a group of talented individuals became a team.
Oxford were on tour in Biarritz and Carter, disappointed by the amount of time players spent on their mobiles instead of engaging with those around them, was glad when a surfing session was arranged for the whole squad. The size of the waves, however, took them by surprise and fear replaced the gaiety as the players struggled in the swell. “It brought the group closer together and was a pivotal moment for us,” says Carter.
This year’s Oxford team has had no such epiphany but in Taylor, a student of anthropology at Keble College, the Dark Blues have a leader deeply appreciative of person-centred philosophy.
“That anecdote about the surfing highlights the importance of non-rugby interaction and getting to know people off the field. Those moments when you share quite euphoric or threatening occasions, such as battling huge waves or being in a country where they don’t speak your language, are when you have to rely on team-mates.
“John believes, as I do, in getting beyond the surface layer and interacting with players in a true way. That happens in the long term for any team but we only have a three-month window so must deliberately accelerate that process. It’s more crucial than the technical skills and we spend a serious amount of time together in the Michaelmas term.
“I’ve done some research on this and last year we spent 25-30 hours a week in each other’s company, whether on the field, eating meals, in the gym or having physio. John spent more like 40-50 hours a week with the team, so for some it’s like a full-time job. We have a group of highly skilled athletes, everyone in the team can catch and pass a ball. But it’s hard to gel that team, to achieve that click.”
Lessons from China
It’s not a common word in sports terminology but stems from Taylor’s life in academia. The 26-year-old Australian was brought up in rural NSW, where he played rugby league before being introduced to union aged 13 at boarding school in Canberra. He studied social anthropology and Chinese Studies at Sydney University and has spent a lot of time in China. He speaks Mandarin and did a thesis called ‘Tackling rugby in China’, an analysis of what the game means to players there and what goes in at the human level.
“I’m doing a masters now and part of it is trying to figure out the dynamics of cooperation and social bonding. Team dynamics. In the pro environment the level of analysis behind performance is thorough. A rugby player is classed as a rugby player but that’s too surface level. There’s a diversity of talents and personalities within a team, they’re not rugby robots. Treating a rugby player as a human being, and enabling that emotional health and energy to flourish in a meaningful way, is at the heart of all great sides.”
Full-back Taylor will be the sixth Australian skipper in 12 seasons at Oxford, following Brett Robinson (2001), John Allen (2003), David Lubans (2004), Joe Roff (2007) and Nick Haydon (2010). Two years ago he was vice-captain of the Australian sevens team, with whom he played for more than three years before taking a break from rugby last year.
A foot fracture delayed his start to this season, but he went on the pre-season tour to Russia, where Oxford beat St Petersburg University 83-3 and RC Slava 42-5.
“The tour was part of our journey and one of the most crucial steps. It was purely a rugby team focus so was an incredible opportunity to create energy within the team without other distractions,” says Taylor, who, with Cambridge captain Harry Peck, talks about the Varsity Match build-up in our video below.
“We saw two great cities in St Petersburg and Moscow and experienced the cultural diversity.
St Petersburg was more of a training week but we were disappointed not to be tested more by Slava because they’re a pro side. But our hosts embraced the game of rugby, the camaraderie and sportsmanship. The people-to-people interaction was special, especially given such antagonism on an international relations level. Rugby offers a unique platform to connect as humans.”
Saracens’ Charlie Hodgson, Wasps’ Kearnan Myall and Hartpury College’s Wayne Thompson help Oxford with coaching, under director of coaching James Wade, and the Dark Blues have plenty of on-field Varsity experience at their disposal. It includes the front row that set the platform for last year’s victory, with Ian Williams, Nick Gardner and Lewis Anderson playing havoc with the Cambridge scrum – two tries came directly from Oxford’s dominance.
“Lewis has played in four Varsity Matches, Nick is going into his third and Ian (one Blue) trained with London Welsh over the summer and is fit, strong and mentally in a very positive place. But it would be naïve to think we can bank on the same dominance as we had last year. Reading too much into what has gone before is dangerous. All four of our previous wins were created in unique and one-off circumstances.”
This year’s Varsity Match is dedicated to the 55 Blues who fell in World War One. Two of that number, Reginald Hands and Stephen Steyn, were pioneers of the scholarship system set up in 1903 under the will of Cecil Rhodes. A century on, Taylor is a Rhodes scholar himself and the commemoration to fallen heroes merely adds to the honour he feels at being asked to lead out the Oxford side.
“One of the defining metaphors for the current Oxford University team is to try to replicate the spirit of the Army in all we do. It will be a privilege to pay our respects to the 55 Blues who gave their lives.”
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For more on the Varsity Match commemoration, watch the video below. The match takes place on Thursday 11 December, 2.30pm kick-off. Tickets cost from £26 and are available from ticketmaster.co.uk.