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Lion-hearted effort sees Cambridge University beat Oxford in the 30th Women's Varsity Match

Twickenham Women's Varsity. Picture by Keith Heppell. (5847559)
Twickenham Women's Varsity. Picture by Keith Heppell. (5847559)

With a performance that epitomised the badge of Cambridge University RUFC, a lion-hearted defensive effort helped the Light Blues earn victory in the 30th Women’s Varsity Match.

As the points have flowed freely in the BUCS League this season, they headed into facing Oxford at Twickenham with optimism that when the attack got going, they could blow teams apart.

The question they faced, though, was how their defence would stand up to the test against a Dark Blues team who play a tier higher in the BUCS system, and were out for blood after defeat 12 months ago.

They answered definitively though – brilliantly.

Emblems are chosen when a club is established and it is then up to the players adorning the kit to embody the characteristics and attributes befitting the crest.

And seldom will you see a team do that as well as Cambridge did at English rugby’s HQ.

Breaks over the gain line were in short supply from both sides, but that made for a gruelling and equally compelling match – with the battering rams coming into full effect to protect territory, if not possession.

It is fair to say that Oxford had the greater share of both attributes – territory and possession – in the early exchanges, but almost from the off, Cambridge showed their defensive nous and discipline.

Fly-half Fiona Kennedy was trying to dictate play along the Oxford line – the problem was that she had not countered for Cambridge inside centre Mary Coleman.

The King’s College student was the team manager to captain Kate Marks this season, but it was clear from early on that she did not just manage things off the pitch, she managed them on the field as well.

The defensive structure and discipline to hold their line in open play inevitably led to Coleman being called upon at continuously to bash her opponent backwards, and earned her stitches to a nose injury for good measure.

But when it comes to nose injuries, the greater honour goes to Jenni Shuttleworth, who broke hers during the first half but continued to play the rest of the game after some gentle persuasion from twin sister Fiona.

And Cambridge will undoubtedly be thankful that she did as the duo formed a wholly trinity with Emily Pratt in the back row.

It was not just their ability to earn steals and tackle Oxford to a halt, it was also that all of their efforts in that regard were preventing any quick ball.

Time and again they tackled the Dark Blues back over the line, and it must have been disheartening as it felt that no matter what Oxford tried, they were just not going to get through.

The Shuttleworths and Pratt seemed to be everywhere all at once, and it was probably fitting therefore that in the last play of the game, just as Oxford’s Sophie Trott seemed to see daylight and the try-line, Pratt came flying across to take her opponent into touch.

It was also Pratt that scored Cambridge’s try, picking up off the base of a scrum in the 30th minute to touch down.

It had arrived after one of the first forays into the Oxford 22, given such an encampment that had taken place previously.

Captain Kate Marks had been making some wise decisions at scrum-half with exit plays, trying to move and look after possession when the cosh was on rather than kicking it clear and putting pressure back on themselves.

Jenni Shuttleworth and Coleman, who had both gone off with blood injuries in the 34th minute, came back on at the start of the second half, and some early dominance had led to a penalty in the 47th minute that Alice Elgar converted to make it 8-0 to Cambridge.

What then followed was a battle in the middle third of the pitch, with territory hard fought over, and limited sights of play in either 22.

Cambridge full-back Lara Gibson almost scored a wonder try, breaking from deep in her own half and running through the entire team only to be faced down by Oxford opposite number Connie Hurton.

Oxford were creating overlaps as the game went on though, and it was only the scramble defence of the Light Blues, led by Coleman, that was keeping them out.

At times it felt that the Dark Blues made the wrong decision by straightening up and going back inside, but maybe there was a subconscious element of maintaining possession to go through the phases given how many times they had been tackled into touch out wide.

The Dark Blues’ play did earn its rewards though, with Katie Collis touching down for their first try at Twickenham since the Women’s Varsity Match has been played there.

There were a few more minutes for Cambridge to see out and they did so with relative ease, playing in the Oxford half, and far away from danger before Pratt’s late tackle brought the game to a conclusion and an 8-5 win for the Light Blues.

It was fitting reward for lioness Marks who has led the side brilliantly this year, and her cubs did themselves and the badge proud with their whole-hearted display.

Cambridge University: Lara Gibson* (Lucy Cavendish); Sophie Farrant* (Emmanuel), Bluebell Nicholls* (King’s), Mary Coleman* (King’s), Amelia Miller (Downing); Lucy Gimson (St Catherine’s), Kate Marks* (Murray Edwards); Jenny Orriss* (St Catherine’s), Samantha Chan* (Churchill), Emma Pierce* (St Catherine’s), Alice Elgar* (Girton), Jacqueline Bramley (Girton), Fiona Shuttleworth* (Pembroke), Jenni Shuttleworth (Churchill), Emily Pratt* (Emmanuel).

Replacements: Jessica Abele (Girton), Sophie Taylor (Homerton), Charlotte Spruzen* (Queens’), Joa Hoshizaki (Churchill), Elisha Clark (St John’s), Sydney Bradshaw (Wolfson), Maxine Meju (Fitzwilliam), Tabbie Brough (Queens’).

Oxford University: Hurton; Wigginton, Trott*, D'Cruz*, Potts*; Kennedy, Ling; Ellender*, Bidgood*, Sopher, Opara, Collis*, Bernier, Murison, Cooper*.

Replacements: Cartwright*, Rees*, Durbin, Vodounon, Male, Wellens, Carters, Simpson.

Referee: Nikki O'Donnell.

Scorers: 30min Pratt try (5-0), 47 Elgar pen (8-0), 80+3 Collis try (8-5).

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