Battle lines drawn for Varsity
December 6, 2011
Oxford skipper Nick Hayden lifts the Varsity trophy last year © Getty Images
Oxford are looking to make it back-to-back wins when they tackle Cambridge in the 130th Varsity Match at Twickenham on Thursday.
Cambridge head the honours board with 61 wins to Oxford's 54 but it has been predominantly light blue in recent years. Cambridge have taken four of the last six clashes in the annual match but it was Oxford who prevailed last year taking an uninspiring match 21-10. But with Twickenham currently enduring some of its' darkest days, the Rugby Football Union will hope that the Varsity restores some faith in an age-old institution.
But the match will have to make do without the odyssey of international stars who have graced the inter-University stage. Figures such as former All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver, Australian centre Joe Roff and ex-England international Phil de Glanville have all turned out in the Varsity in the past but while this year's clash lacks the marquee name, there are still a host of internationals and ex-Premiership players on show.
Going into the clash, Oxford have had mixed preparations. They accounted for National League One side Ealing and National Two South's Richmond - prevailing 19-12 and 45-29 respectively - but found themselves distinctly second best against the Championship's London Welsh - where they lost 38-0. And faced with a Northampton Wanderers side - which featured the likes of Tom May, Stephen Myler, Paul Diggin and Samu Manoa - they were thoroughly outclassed 68-0. In their final clash prior to Thursday's Varsity, they faced Championship basement side Esher - who have only collected one point thus far this season - but lost 32-20.
Cambridge, however, have fared slightly better going into the clash. They have accounted for a London Scottish side alongside Blackheath - winning 30-7 and 24-18 respectively - and have faced two Premiership sides. While Oxford were completely hammered by the Saints, Cambridge managed to stay within touching distance before eventually falling 21-18. And against Saracens - who featured Rodd Penney, Kameli Ratuvou and Nils Mordt in their line up - they lost 46-22. But despite falling against the Premiership champions, Cambridge will take solace from the second-half which they edghed 19-7.
Oxford University - Player to Watch: Captain John Carter has tasted glory with Sale Sharks when they took the Premiership title in 2006 and after missing last year's clash with an injured shoulder, he will look to make his mark back at Twickenham.
Oxford University - Team News: The only change to the pack which took the clash last year - other than the return of skipper Carter - sees Derek Asbun start at blindside where he will start alongside Louis Mather at seven and skipper Carter at eight. Hamish Macdonald, Govind Oliver and Will Kane form the front-row with Karl Outen and Tom Evans providing the grunt in the second-row. But it is all change in the backs with Sam Egerton taking the scrum-half role with Tom Mitchell at half-back. Cassian Branham Law and Sean Morris - who played at outside centre last year - take the wing berths with Seb Perkins and Gavin Turner in the centres. Jon Hudson takes the fullback spot.
Cambridge University - Player to Watch: Cambridge are captained by former Canadian international Matt Guinness-King - who has nine caps to his name. After suffering the snub from this year's global gathering, he will aim to show that he can still cut it in front of a huge crowd and in what promises to be his final match of competitive rugby.
Cambridge University - Team News: The Cambridge side sees widespread changes from last year with four players who started the 2010 clash keeping their place in the side but two have changed position. Stuart Brown keeps his place at tight-head alongside Mark Murdoch at hooker and William Briggs at loose-head - who was on the bench last year. In the second-row Jason Kururangi switches from blindside to the second-row and will pack down with Scott Annett. Ben Martin was on the bench last year but starts at blindside this time around with Rob Malaney taking the openside berth and former Ulster player Dave Allen at No.8. In the backs there is a new half-back partnership which sees Steve Townend and Don Blake alongside each other while Robert Stevens keeps his spot on the left wing. Kristian Cook and Matt Guinness-King form the centre partnership with Paul Loudon moving from inside centre last year to the right wing. Tom O'Toole takes the fullback shirt.
Key Battle: The battle at the front of the scrum will be where the game is won and lost. Oxford have named the same front-row which helped their charge to victory last year and will come up against a Cambridge side buoyed by the better pre-Varsity form.
Trivia: The practice of awarding Blues goes back to the 1836 Boat Race when the Oxford crew raced in dark blue colours and the Cambridge boat had a light blue ribbon tied to its front. The colours became synonymous with the two universities and were awarded to participants taking part in the race.
Stats: There have been a total of 2,144 Blues since the first Varsity Match -1084 for Oxford and 1060 for Cambridge up to and including the 2010 game
"We've got some 19-year-olds in the team and is key that they just play their game. It's easy to get overawed because it's a huge stadium and there'll be a big crowd. I'll be trying to make sure they just play their game and worry about everything else afterwards."
"Nigel's such a positive guy and he's taken it well. The match means as much to him as anyone else and he put a lot of his life on hold to get ready for the match. He's going to be the team manager on the day and he's still training with us. It's very fitting that he will fulfil that role."
Prediction: Oxford took the match last year but Cambridge seem to be in better form heading into the clash and will edge it by a couple of points
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The All Blacks' form is not a peaking issue, but Hansen must threaten to wield his axe, to demand improvement, Craig Dowd writes
"It has been the World Cup that smashed down the gender barriers of the sport." Tom Hamilton looks back at a remarkable tournament
A selection of the best pictures from England's historic World Cup triumph in Paris as they beat Canada 21-9
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Women's World Cup, the opening round of the Top 14 and the Rugby Championship