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Battle of the back rows could be in store in the 136th Varsity Match

By Mark Taylormark.taylor@iliffemedia.co.uk

Matt Watson has thrived at Cambridge University this season.
Matt Watson has thrived at Cambridge University this season.

Cambridge and Oxford Universities set for Twickenham clash

James Shanahan is predicting a fierce contest between the back rows of Cambridge and Oxford Universities at Twickenham in the 136th Varsity Match on Thursday (December 7).

The Light Blues named their squad this week to take on their rivals, and it featured seven returnees, including Will Briggs, who is set to earn an historic seventh Varsity Match Blue.

But one of the most fiercely-competitive areas for Cambridge was in the back five, where there were realistically eight players competing for five spots.

The nod in the second row ended up going to returning Blue Andrew Hunter and former Bristol player Nick Koster, with Matt Watson, Stephen Leonard and Buchan Richardson earning the places in the back row.

It means Henry Rose and Tyler Hammond will be among the replacements, while Rowan Beckett has missed out on a spot in the squad.

“They have all done well – Hammond, Rose and Beckett, it was hard to leave him out of the squad completely,” said head coach Shanahan. “When Leonard and Watson have played together, they have given us a real edge around the park, they are full of energy.

“Buchan has that ability to beat defenders and is a bit of a game changer. And Koster and Hunter are just workhorses and experienced players.

“We went with experience, and then the youth and energy of the other two. Tyler (Hammond) has got better and better every week, and it was a tough decision.

“Then Rose is the same, we will get great energy off the bench from him, he is a great chop tackler, works really hard, knows what I need from him and what I want from him.

“He gives us a nice edge on the bench, whereas that experience of Hunter and Koster is invaluable.

“When it comes down to a one-off game, you have to go with your instincts, which is pick your best players.

“I’m sure those boys who are on the bench can really come on and make an impact, which is massive in that last 20 minutes.”

Leonard earns a Blue after missing out through injury last year, having caught the eye the previous season during the Lent Term, in the same way that Watson did in 2017.

And the No 6 produced an another impressive display in the 53-22 over the Steele-Bodger XV last week, when Henry King and Hammond got two tries apiece and Jake Hennessey, Rory Triniman, Archie Russell and James Elms got one each.

“Watson was great in the Lent Term and what’s been brilliant is that he has worked so hard on his conditioning; he put on about 10kg of solid muscle,” said Shanahan.

“He is fitter than he was, he’s stronger than he was and he’s faster than he was.

“I’m looking forward to him hopefully making a massive impression against a very tough Oxford back row, with Andy Saull and [Will] Wilson so they look very strong as well.

“I think it’s going to be a massive competition in the back row. We see it as probably a strength of our side and I’m sure Oxford see exactly the same in theirs, so it will be a huge contest there.”

There is also a place in the team for former England sevens captain Ollie Phillips.

The 2009 world international sevens player of the year missed out last year through injury; an issue that has ruled fellow winger Ed Loftus out this time.

“Ollie was sevens world player of the year back in the day, he has got so much experience and talent,” said Shanahan.

“I know he has got a few grey hairs and is getting on a little bit but he is someone who can really rise to the big game.”

Captain Charlie Amesbury, Mike Phillips, Jonny Dixon, Andrew Burnett and Henry King complete the list of Blues in the starting line-up, while last year’s matchwinner Rory Triniman is on the bench.

Cambridge University women’s captain Lara Gibson has named 11 returning Blues in her squad to face Oxford (kick off 11.30am).

The Light Blues are out for revenge after last year’s 3-0 defeat, and they have been going great guns in the BUCS league this year.

They have scored 362 points and conceded only seven in their five matches to date.

Tickets are on sale for the 31st Women’s Varsity Match and 136th Men’s Varsity Match at Twickenham, costing £25 for adults and £15 for students, at thevarsitymatch.com.


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