Cambridge University catch the eye with season opening win over Loughborough University
Light Blues get in the flow at Grange Road
For many a year, you just tend to expect Cambridge University’s momentum to build during the Michaelmas Term to reach a peak in the Varsity Match at Twickenham.
Therefore, you were left to ponder if it was still only September at Grange Road given the performance by the Light Blues against Loughborough University.
There was a slickness and togetherness about their display that was really impressive for the first game of the season and there was an all too rare win, at least in recent times, against the Leicestershire institution to boot.
The ability to keep the ball alive, the running and support lines and the awareness of space were all features that often do not start to come to the fore until the back end of October, at least, but were there in abundance against Loughborough.
Head coach James Shanahan had spoken in the build-up to the forthcoming academic year of the benefit of continuity, with the only new face in the squad for the game being outside centre Joe Gatus.
It meant there was a wider awareness of the systems and structures expected by the Light Blues, who featured a number of players making their step up through the levels at the club.
Shanahan had also alluded to the players returning to pre-season training fitter and stronger than before, and for some it was visible in their sheer physicality.
One of the stand-outs in that regard was Chris Bell, and his performance matched the same heights.
The scrum-half is now one of the more experienced players in the squad, and when Cambridge had the ball, he was running affairs.
The No 9 also had a prominent role in what must already go down as a contender for try of the season – even though it was only 22 minutes old.
Bell had already raced clear after Gatus’ pass out of the tackle to get the opening try after two minutes, with Mike Philips converting, and then had a crucial role in the second.
Superb work from Jake Hennessey had put the Light Blues on the front foot, and he passed to Bell, who jinked past two tackles before finding winger Elliot Baines on the inside line to take the pass and power through in the diagonal to touch down.
It was the sort of free-flowing rugby that is the hallmark of Shanahan, and should no doubt now act as the blueprint for the season.
Cambridge had extended their lead to 19-0 after 28 minutes as after going through the phases, Mile Huppatz managed to dot down.
It was not all plain-sailing for the Light Blues though, and in many ways that will also be the benchmark.
The penalty count against them was very high, and they may consider themselves a touch fortunate that referee Nick Caunt did not see fit to award a penalty try against them after four successive penalties in the 22 defending their line, which did earn Andrew Hunter a yellow card in the ninth minute.
But when they were clean and disciplined, they defended well and were able to turnover possession to clear their lines.
However, after a number more penalties towards the end of the half led to a yellow card for Jonny Dixon, a gap finally broke for Loughborough fly-half Josh Lewis to two-step his way over the line, and also land the conversion to make it 19-7 at half time.
Bell was at it again not long into the second half, taking a quick tap penalty to dart over the line, and Phillips added the extras to make it 26-7.
Loughborough became a stronger force as the second half wore on and reduced the deficit with some patient play that created an overlap for Aaron Tait to score in the corner, with Victor Keunen converting.
The territorial advantage was in favour of the visitors, but Cambridge’s defence was standing firm until enough holes were punched through the line for Lewis to pounce through and touch down, with Keunen adding the extras with a great kick into the wind that hit the bar and went over to make it 26-21.
The Light Blues had enough about them though to see out the game for a deserved 26-21 win though and it sets the standard for the season – and quite a high one at that.
Cambridge University: Blick; Story, Gatus, Hennessey, Baines; Phillips, Bell; MacCallum, Huppatz, Dixon, Beckett, Eriksen, Hunter, Leonard, Koster.
Replacements: Kelly, Dean, Somers, Smart, Antcliff, Elms, Jovanovic, Saunter.
Loughborough University: Burroughs; Beckett, Sheppard, Priestner, Tait; Lewis, Lane; Lines, Cox, Hunt, Boon, Hutchinson, Wilkins, Hill, Kilgallon.
Replacements: Harding, Gallagher, Jameson, Macpherson, Leat, Keunen, Wallis, Walsh, Cruz, Atta, Roberts, Guiry, Bitirim.
Referee: Nick Caunt.
Sin bin: Cambridge University – Hunter (technical offence, 9), Dixon (technical offence, 36).
Scorers: 2min Bell try – Phillips con (7-0), 22 Baines try – Phillips con (14-0), 28 Huppatz try (19-0), 39 Lewis try – Lewis con (19-7), 45 Bell try – Phillips con (26-7), 51 Tait try – Keunen con (26-14), 73 Lewis try – Keunen con (26-21).