Oxford University took the bragging rights last night, overcoming arch-rivals Cambridge University 20 – 16 in the 27th Pcubed Rugby League Varsity match.
Cambridge, looking for their third consecutive win and pre-match favourites following last year’s 44 – 0 victory, started strongest with Kelvin Donald going in for the first try in the opening minutes.
On seven minutes Oxford opted to pull back 2 points, via the boot of Andrew Cook, with a penalty awarded in front of the sticks at the north end of the ground following a high tackle. The decision to take the penalty so early in the game perhaps a sign of Oxford’s desire not to be nilled this year and a mark of respect for the Cambridge defence.
Just five minutes later a blistering 70 metre effort from Varsity veteran Dave Bulley saw Cambridge add their second try, pushing their lead to 6 points. However, two minutes later Oxford were to register their first try through Andrew Benger, following a passage of brilliant play from fullback Cook, although the final pass in the move had more than a suspicion of forward about it. Cook’s conversion left the scores level at 8 - 8.
It was into the closing ten minutes of the first half before we were to see more points added, with Oxford finally hitting the lead when winger Dave Black crossed following some crafty play from halfback Duncan Knox. The ever reliable boot of Cook tagged on the extra 2 points sending Oxford into the half-time break at 14 – 8 up.
The first twenty minutes of the second half were to be a tight affair, with both sides impressing with their commitment to take the game to the opposition and ability to stick to a structured game plan. The game was played at a frenetic pace for an amateur tie, with good lines of running, particularly off the ball, demonstrated by both teams along with some particularly robust defence.
Cambridge were to be the first over the whitewash in the second half, Matt Bray powering over following a good spell of consistent pressure on the Oxford defence. Skipper Dave Bulley added the conversion to level the scores at 14 -14 and set-up a grandstand finish, animating the vociferous and highly partisan crowd.
Both sides spurned several chances to claim the lead in the final quarter, but it was Oxford who gained the advantage when prop Jonny Prescott, one of the players in the squad benefiting from a rugby league scholarship, crashed over for the crucial try. Cook’s inevitable conversion pushing the lead out 20 – 14. Oxford now had the scent of victory in their nostrils although Cambridge refused to give in, throwing every last ounce of energy into their attacks, but it was Oxford who had the best chance in the dying minutes, spurning a chance to put the game beyond all doubt. In the end they clung on to their six point lead, spurring joyous celebrations from players and fans alike on the final whistle.
The increasing profile of this fixture can only be a good thing for rugby league in generating greater support for sport amongst those who control corporate budgets. For a sport that has long been considered the antithesis of the traditional Oxbridge cultures to be establishing itself as a genuine fixture amongst the current students and alumni of these institutions demonstrates how far rugby league has come in its struggle to break out of the insular mindset that was once, if only partially, responsible for chaining it to its traditional heartlands.
Oxford University: (14) 20
Tries: Benger, Black, Prescott
Goals: Cook 4
Cambridge University: (8) 14
Tries: Donald, Bulley, Bray