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Varsity Match, Twickenham
Oxford hold off Cambridge for narrow victory
Huw Baines reports from Twickenham
December 11, 2008
Oxford University's Tim Catling scores the first try during 2008 Varsity match between Oxford University and Cambridge University at Twickenham in Twickenham, England on December 11, 2008.
Oxford University wing Tim Catling races away to score his side's first try at Twickenham
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Three first-half tries from winger Tim Catling were enough to propel Oxford to a thrilling 33-29 win over Cambridge in the 2008 Varsity match at Twickenham.

The Varsity match may well be viewed by some as a throwback, out of tune with the modern game's emphasis on salaries and statistics, but its value cannot be understated for precisely this reason. The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is as old as it is fierce, and no quarter was given at Twickenham in a highly-entertaining contest.

This year's showpiece contained its share of stars, with former All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver and Wallabies lock Dan Vickerman packing down for Oxford and Cambridge respectively, continuing a proud tradition within the sport.

Names such as David Kirk, Rob Andrew, Stuart Barnes, Mike Gibson, Gavin Hastings and most recently World Cup-winning Australian wing Joe Roff have all graced the Varsity game over the years, not only lighting up the quality of the play, but also allowing for another special twist as the amateur players get to face off against the great and good of the sport.

For the amateur players that flanked Oliver and Vickerman, this may well have been the biggest game that they ever play in. Few players ever get to run out in front of 30,000 fans at Twickenham, and in a perfectly romantic way this was a dream come true for many.

Oxford's dark blues dominated possession in the early phases of the game, with wing Tim Catling giving his side the opening score after breaking down his flank and showing great pace to bounce-off several paper-thin tackles from Cambridge's cover defence and dot down.

The response from Cambridge was swift, with quick ball from the base of a five-metre scrum allowing former All Black centre Mark Ranby to crash into the Oxford midfield, creating the overlap that allowed full-back James Richards to dart over in the corner. Richards converted himself, before trading penalties with Oxford inside-centre Thomas Gregory.

It appeared as though the poor sportsmanship exhibited by some in booing kickers during England's autumn internationals was catching, as both kickers were greeted by a chorus of whistles as they lined up their attempts despite the warnings from the match announcer.

With the clock approaching the half-hour, Cambridge enjoyed their first meaningful spell of pressure, banging a penalty into the corner and patiently building the phases through the forwards. A loose pass from scrum-half Doug Rowe in sight of the Oxford line allowed Oxford to clear the pressure, and Cambridge were soon made to rue their missed opportunity.

Catling, found in space off an inside ball, handed off his opposite number James Greenwood and streaked away to score an almost identical try to his first in the corner. With an 18-10 lead under their belts, Oxford were soon on the offensive again. Catling was involved once more as he collected the ball on his wing and chipped over the onrushing Cambridge defence, only to have his way blocked illegally by full-back Richards, who was unceremoniously sin-binned.

Smelling blood, Oxford signalled for the scrum in centre-field, with quick ball finding Catling on a diagonal in midfield to round off his first-half hat trick.

Oxford made this first impact after the break, with Gregory adding another penalty to cement his side's lead at 28-10. Cambridge hit back soon after however, with quick work from USA international scrum-half Rowe setting up a push-over try for prop Niall Conlon.

No sooner had the game re-started than Oxford skipper and open-side Peter Clarke was crashing over the Cambridge line. A superb break from No.8 Peter Wright, joining a rolling maul late and bursting through the middle, drew the Cambridge defence and a simple pop pass sent Clarke cantering over.

Cambridge looked down, but buoyed by the raucous crowd fought back with some more fine work from Rowe releasing outside-centre Chris Lewis on a scything run to the line, only for the Oxford defence to drag him down inches short. Cambridge had the put in to a five-metre scrum, but their discipline gave out, the front row conceding a penalty and allowing Oxford to clear.

The danger was not passed however, as minutes later some quick thinking from Cambridge's replacement scrum-half Rhidian McGuire sent his back-row haring into the Oxford midfield, with replacement flanker Joe Wheeler being awarded the try by the TMO.

With the score at 33-22 Cambridge looked to turn the screw, but some sloppy handling allowed Oxford to easily clear their lines on two occasions. With four minutes left on the clock, quick ball from a 5m scrum on the Oxford line found Cambridge wing James Wellwood on an angle into midfield, and he dissected the Oxford defence to score. With the score at 33-29, Cambridge had three minutes to find the winning score.

For all their effort however, the Oxford defence stood firm, soaking up the pressure before referee Wayne Barnes' whistle signalled wild celebrations and revenge for last year's defeat.

Hat-trick hero Catling, 21, was delighted to have inspired his side's victory with the first hat-trick by an Oxford player in the fixture for 88 years.

"It was a fantastic day and I am in a bit of shock now," said Catling. "I was brought back down to earth a bit in the second half but it was amazing."

The last man to score a Varsity hat-trick for Oxford was Bernard Jacot in 1920, a law student who went on to swim for Great Britain at the 1924 Olympics.

Oxford's former All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver said that they had benefitted from the input of former England coach Brian Ashton. "Brian Ashton has been fabulous for our team. He's brought a really positive attacking attitude. Listening to anecdotes about this game I've heard players tend to freeze. Brian has been on our case saying: 'Have a go and if it's on then play'. That's what we did in the first half. The second half was just about defence.

"Cats [Catling] just cruises along. He's a linguist and although he's pretty modest I think he can speak three or four different languages. He's a lovely guy. A really good team man and fast."

Oxford coach Steve Hill was forced to endure a tense last five minutes and hoped he would not live to regret a mistake from the officials, which saw a Tom Gregory conversion wrongly waved away. "I find it utterly unbelievable that with eight officials we can't get the right decision. That was going through my mind in the last five minutes," he said.

Cambridge coach Tony Rodgers said: "The boys put in a really good second-half performance, especially in the last 20 minutes, but we gave ourselves just a bit too much of a mountain to climb."

Oxford University:(25) 33
Tries: Catling (3), Clarke
Con: Gregory (2)
Pen: Gregory (3)

Cambridge University:(10) 29
Try: Richards, Conlon, Wheeler, Wellwood
Con: Richards
Pen: Richards

Oxford: Chris Mahony (Keble), Sean Morris (Somerville), Jon Burnett (University), Tom Gregory (Kellogg), Tim Catling (Pembroke), Ross Swanson (New), Brendan McKerchar (Keble), Ricky Lutton (Linacre), Anton Oliver (Worcester) , Wayne Thompson (St Cross), Ian Kench (St Cross), Bert Payne (St Peter's), Stan McKeen (Harris Manchester), Peter Clarke (captain, St Cross), Peter Wright (University)

Replacements: Dan Rosen (Worcester), Kevin Davis (Linacre) or Will Johnson (Pembroke), Nic Van Zyl (Green/Templeton), Chris Davies (St Edmund Hall), Toby Henry (Linacre), Alex Cheesman (St Edmund Hall), Will Browne (Balliol)

Cambridge: Jimmy Richards (Hughes Hall), James Wellwood (St Edmund's), Chris Lewis (St. Catharine's), Mark Ranby (St. Edmund's), James Greenwood (Hughes Hall), Sandy Reid (St. John's), Doug Rowe (Hughes Hall), Niall Conlon (St Edmund's), Matt Crockett (St Edmund's), Jon Dawson (captain, St Edmund's), Marty Wilson (Selwyn), Dan Vickerman (Hughes Hall), Will Jones (St Edmund's), Tom Malaney (St Edmund's), Trevor Boynton (Hughes Hall)

Replacements: Andy Daniel (St Edmund's), Patrick Crossley (Homerton), Conor O'Keeffe (St Edmund's), Charlie Rees (St Catharine's), Joe Wheeler (St Edmund's), Rhidian McGuire (Hughes Hall), Scott MacLellan (St John's)

Yellow Card: J. Richards

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Attendance: 29,853

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