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Cambridge University captain Stephen Leonard predicts intense Varsity Match battle with Oxford at Leicester Tigers

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Cambridge University RUFC captain Stephen Leonard. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University RUFC captain Stephen Leonard. Picture: Keith Heppell

Stephen Leonard is anticipating the intensity of the Varsity Match to be ramped even higher than normal on Sunday (July 4).

Cambridge University will take on Oxford at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road (kick off 3.30pm), under adapted rules, which means no scrums or mauls.

Without those two components of the game, it means that there is very little let-up in the action.

“The only difference is that we have to expect the ball to be in play for another 10 minutes per match with fewer rest periods,” said the Light Blues skipper Leonard.

“Our fitness levels, thankfully, were through the roof because we had only been able to run around for a year.

“The first few games were a shock to the lungs, and I think that will be a pretty dramatic alteration to normal Varsity Matches which are already exhausting.

“Typically, you would get 30 minutes ball in play time, whereas I’m pretty sure this will be more than 40.

“Since it’s come to light that it’s definitely going to be adapted rules, Shanners (head coach James Shanahan) is looking to be a little bit more intricate with these slow tap free kicks.

“But apart from that, things haven’t changed that dramatically, it’s still a game of making sure you get territory, playing in the right areas, being very physical, making sure our skill set is good.”

When it became apparent that the match may be played under adapted rules, Cambridge and Oxford submitted squad lists to each other indicating front-row players in order to make sure that they were included, as it would have been easy to push them to one side without scrums in order to play more back-row players.

It is all part of the team ethos that has been generated in the squad.

There were times during the winter lockdown when it was questioned whether the Varsity Match would be held this year, but the players joined forces virtually to do one or two fitness sessions a week via Zoom.

“There were quite a few times in January and February where we would send messages saying, ‘Guys, the Varsity Match has about a three per cent chance of happening, but if that is the case we’ve got to be ready for it’,” said Leonard.

“The numbers stayed high, and I think the boys bounced off each other. Their thoughts might have drifted away from the Varsity Match but we had those deep friendships within the squad and I think the boys found it very helpful to do those sessions together as, if nothing else, a mental health break.”

The opportunity just to play against Oxford was all that they craved, having last faced the Dark Blues in December 2019, but when that became reality, the focus started to shift.

“I think there were definitely periods throughout the year when all I really wanted was for us to be able to play a game – at that point the result in my mind wasn’t feeling that important,” said Leonard.

“But as soon as we got into the build-up and now that we’re here, I’m one of the 23 guys in our Varsity Match squad who is absolutely desperate to go out and win.”

The women's match, which sees Cambridge bidding for a fourth win in a row, kicks off at 1pm.

Cambridge University men: Gatus*; Isaacs, Hennessey*, Watson*, Jemphrey*; Dussarte, Favell; Collins*, Chaudhry, Pettit, Walton*, Bischoff, Lloyd-Williams, Obembe, Leonard. Replacements: Parry, Jackson, Cook, Beckett, West, Elms, Loveridge, Chibale.

Oxford University men: Stoller*; Jackson*, Greenhalgh*, Humberstone, Quinlan; Humberstone*, Grant; Aaron Henry*, Barker, Friend*, Dix*, van Dadelszen, Miller*, Durutalo, Messum*. Replacements: Wright*, Vaughan*, Dennis-Soto, Myall, Watson*, Tegner, Hackett*, Wright.

Cambridge University women: Halcrow*; Friend, Bell, Simpson, Jones; Clark*, Russell; Stevenson, Spruzen*, Gomezgill, Hicks*, Schneemann*, J Shuttleworth*, F Shuttleworth*, Park. Replacements: Osborne, Bleehen*, Elgar*, Scowen*, Prowling*, Bushrod, Atherton*, Posniak.

Oxford University women: Holmes*; Hindson, Carter*, Coltellini, Potts*; Kennedy*, Johnes; Mellor, Cadman, Abele*, Collins*, Schmidt*, Isaac, Travers, Cooper*. Replacements: James, Gough, Maxfield, Allum Pearce, Martin, Farmer, Chor, Hawley.

* denotes Blue

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