Oxford women's naked ambition
December 12, 2013
Oxford and Cambridge contest the 2013 Varsity Match © OUWRFC
Rugby has taken a fair old bashing recently. The European row is dragging on, the issues of concussion are, rightly, making headlines and the Welsh exodus is showing no signs of abating. But there is some hope for the game at grassroots, school and university level where the love of the game is the driving force.
Thursday sees the 132nd Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge take place at Twickenham, an event that is risking becoming anachronistic in the ever-modernising sport, but still draws in the crowd. The traditional build-up sees the various captains dominate the news agenda, but this year, something different has occurred. It is the Oxford University Women's Rugby Football Club who have stolen the spotlight.
Meet club captain and outside centre Tatiana Cutts and the club's president Elizabeth Dubois, who plays in the back-row. It was their brainchild to put together a naked calendar, the notion of which divides opinion but raises more smiles than frowns. They are now an annual event in rugby circles and, bar the infamous Dieux du Stade effort, are an exercise in hiding modesty in plain sight - something even Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin would struggle to decrypt.
The response to their effort has been incredible. When they sat down to order the calendar, Cutts estimated they would sell 200, Dubois was more optimistic and suggested 800. A week on and they have surpassed 3500. "We've had a number of comments back saying this is a great cause, how happy people are and the messages of support," Dubois told ESPN. "If the orders didn't speak for themselves as they do, then this does."
The feedback has been positive with only one or two minor detractors who feel it is distasteful, something Dubois disagrees with and instead points to the benefits of the calendar. "The calendar fits in, in two ways. Firstly, challenging the stereotypes of women's rugby. Looking at our team, some of us have been playing the sport for years and some have just picked up a ball.
"We're all different shapes and sizes with different academic backgrounds with future goals but we are playing as a team together and we have that inclusivity. The other part is our partner charity which is 'Mind Your Head'. It's an organisation we have been working with for a number of years. They are important to a number of girls on the team."
Away from the fun of the calendar, their shock at the response and the hours stacking envelopes to send them to as far-flung places as South Korea, the Oxford women's team have big plans.
The start of the season saw them change their entire structure. A head coach was brought in, alongside a development coach and two assistants, a pitch hired and floodlights bought. Their squad size currently numbers 45, a group that includes England Under-20 international Jessie Flowers.
A season of transition, but one which also came with its challenges. Just six of the team who started last year's Varsity stayed at the university which meant a drive in recruitment was essential. It also meant the first couple of games in the season - Oxford play in the top league in the BUCS system - saw the unfamiliarity between the players prove costly.
"You have to provide them with an introduction to the game and one that doesn't just terrify them" Cutts says referring to their new batch of players. "Gloucestershire beat us 90-0 in the second week [of term] and we played them again in the sixth week, two weeks ago, and we lost 32-22 so that's a huge improvement.
"It's been tough for me as a captain to take the girls out on to the field and tell them to play their hearts out, even though we are probably going to lose in those circumstances. It's hard, but full credit to them, they have been fantastic, it's not easy."
Elizabeth Dubois (centre left) and Tatiana Cutts (centre right) © OUWRFC
'Play their hearts out' seems a very polite way of putting it when referring to Cutts' team-talks, though the truth soon becomes apparent. "I've tried to replace the word fucking, with super this year," she admits. "I'm not bad at swearing but since I've been captain, my language has got so bad."
With a squad size of 45 and their new infrastructure, it is clear Cutts and Dubois are not ones for hanging around - the former admits she has to do her Law PHD in her spare time. And the next target? Secure a space in the Varsity experience at Twickenham. Theirs is currently on March 8 at Iffley Road, the ground where the men play, an occasion removed from Thursday's Oxbridge bonanza.
Thursday's showcase event at Twickenham sees the Under-21s play first with the Blues following. If Dubois had it her way, the women would also get a chance to play at that famous stadium.
"So this is something we've been lobbying for, for the last couple of years. The men's side seems keen to help us out but there's the fact there are two games already being played at Twickenham. Twickenham will only allow two games in one day and so then it becomes this other dynamic, not only bringing the women's team there but how do you rearrange the various men's games that happen?
"There's also some worry about changing the structure of our season as it would cause us to restructure everything from our pre-season to how we train, how we prioritise different things and so, on our end, we're actually in a better position than Cambridge might be as we have introduced a Sevens season. So there's a whole bunch of different factors in play which are causing it to not move forward very quickly."
Having witnessed their love for the game, you hope they get their wish. It was hugely refreshing to hear two individuals talk so passionately about the sport. While the calendar sales increase, raising key funds for the club alongside their chosen charity, the goals remain the same as the start of the season - playing rugby for the love of it while preaching the inclusive nature of the sport.
"When you first start rugby you can make up for a lack of sporting ability with aggression," Cutts said. "So my other sport is surfing. Both have something in common - in that moment, you throw yourself into it, and nothing else matters."
Faith in the game restored.
To buy one of their calendars click here
More information on 'Mind Your Head' can be found here
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September