Hard work reaps Varsity Match rewards for Cambridge University
Perfect planning for Light Blues
When did Cambridge University win the 135th Varsity Match?
Officially, it was about 4.10pm on Thursday, December 8, 2016, when referee Tim Wigglesworth’s whistle went to confirm the Light Blues’ 23-18 win over Oxford.
But for anyone that closely follows Cambridge, there could be an argument made that it was around the same time on December 10, 2015, when the final whistle went to signal a 12-6 loss to the Dark Blues, and a sixth successive defeat.
It was not so much the determination to make sure history was not repeated, but it was the promise shown that the tide could be turned in that performance that laid a foundation for the club, and since they returned under Daniel Dass’ captaincy in the new Lent Term in January, there has been no looking back.
Head coach James Shanahan has put in place a blueprint for the future of the club – a style of play that will run from the seniors to the under-20s, and is aimed at giving Cambridge a shape for years to come.
So the case could be made that the seeds were sown in that defeat in 2015, and after a year of work and development, they bore fruit at Twickenham in 2016.
And the words cool, calm and collected really reflect the Cambridge University squad that brought to an end half a decade of despair, and those traits are probably best characterised by the duo that created their shape.
“A man of not many words but when he does speak he demands instant respect,” was the description applied to Dass by team-mate and full-back Charlie Amesbury in the build—up to the 135th Varsity Match.
Those sentiments also apply to Shanahan. You will seldom hear him berate or lament his squad in public – and it does not matter if it goes on behind closed doors – and that has helped rub off on the Light Blues.
So too has the attacking intent with which he prides his teams – for the first time in many years Cambridge had a creativity and freedom that not only put pressure on their rivals but stretched them.
In too many games during their losing run they battled to power their way over the line, but when the Dark Blue wall repelled their attack, they had nowhere else to turn.
However, by stretching the game to its width this year and then trying to bring play back to the centres, they were posing issues for Oxford, whose hunting as a pack was being tested.
That was bringing in to play the dominant back row of Dass, Brian Du Toit and Tom Stanley, as with play stretched they were getting to most breakdowns first, and stealing, spoiling and disrupting the possession of their rivals.
It was Du Toit that won the man-of-the-match honours, but as would probably be expected on an afternoon where Cambridge ended a long losing run there were multiple contenders.
Fraser Gillies kicked 13 points and working with Seb Tullie, the half-back pair ran the game for Cambridge.
They manoeuvred their team-mates into positions to keep Oxford at bay and give themselves an attacking platform – it was just the sort of control that coaches dream that a No 9 and No 10 can exert on a game.
Gillies had a key role in what turned out to be the crucial try, kicking crossfield for Lare Erogbogbo, who caught the high ball superbly before passing to Rory Triniman, and the centre showed brilliant control in the tackle to roll with the force to touch down.
The call for Gillies to kick had been initiated by Mike Phillips at inside centre, and he was helping to make sure his fly-half knew what was on all day and was acting as one of the side’s chief communicators.
But just as important was his intercept try just before half time, when he seized on an errant pass by Oxford’s Henry de Berker to race through to score beneath the posts, with Gillies’ extras making it 7-3 at the break.
One of the reasons for the limited chances in the first half was the superb defence, and a prominent figure was Cambridge’s Charlie Amesbury, whose huge dump tackle on Ed David in the first period earned six repeats on the Twickenham big screens.
And just as important was some superb teamwork in the second period, with the score at 13-6, when Matt Geiger looked to be through but was caught by Gillies, and Amesbury came barrelling over to take his rival into touch.
It was this sort of never-say-die spirit and teamwork that epitomised Cambridge’s display, where all the pieces came together on the one afternoon.
The line-out was dominant and after a jitter in the first scrum of the afternoon, it more than held its own to prevent Oxford getting any dominant go forward.
But what stood out was the unrelenting nature of the match, and it helped make it a compelling visual spectacle.
And the great thing from a Cambridge perspective, 2016 witnessed a long-awaited Light Blue win.
Cambridge University: Amesbury; Davies, Triniman, Phillips, King; Gillies, Tullie Briggs, Burnett, Dixon, Hunter, Bond, Stanley, Du Toit, Dass.
Replacements: Hugkulstone (Burnett, 40), Lola Erogbogbo (Hunter, 62), Lare Erogbogbo (King, 65), Bartholomew (Dass, 64), Moros (Dixon, 77).
Oxford University: Geiger; David, Hughes, Hogg, Stileman; Strang, de Berker; Ball, Hart, Morris, Taylor, Grant, Roberts-Huntley, Blomfield, Wilson.
Replacements: Kershaw (De Berker, 40), Thornton (Hart, 54), Kearns (Hogg, 60), Beaufils (Grant, 75), Marsden (Hughes, 79).
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth.