Picture special: Four Women’s Varsity Match wins in a row for Cambridge University
The best things come to those who wait, so we are told, and Cambridge University definitely fulfilled that prophecy at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road last Sunday.
The Women’s Varsity Match class of winter 2020 became the summer cohort of 2021 and in many ways it was a feat to just get the fixtures against Oxford to happen at all, even with an eight-month delay.
Adapted rules, without scrums and mauls, may have been the order of the day, but in some ways that was fitting for the Light Blues as it gave them the opportunity to showcase the vast array of weapons that this group of players have in their armoury.
Without the power of packing down, they adjusted their skillset to manoeuvre themselves into the right positions on the pitch.
Able teachers – or coaches, in this instance – and willing students create a recipe for success, and Cambridge made sure that rather than being blunted by a lack of a scrum, they strengthened their arsenal at the line-out.
Forwards that may have feared being sidelined in the current age found they were turbo-charged, using pick and gos to make valuable ground, and once they had a foot in enemy territory, a high defence and fierce line was not going to let Oxford out.
The line-out meant that when the ball went dead, it was inevitably going to end up back in the clutches of Cambridge – either through a possession-led game off the tail on attack or by turnover through speed of defence.
That is what has been so impressive about the evolving nature of the women’s game at Grange Road in recent years, they seem to thrive off a challenge of perfecting something new or different.
The scale of territory and possession is intangible to the scoreline, although that it was just 10-5 to Cambridge is in no small part down to the defensive display from Oxford, who overexerted themselves time and again.
The points came through first-time Blues Maggie Simpson, with a try, and the boot of Anna Park, who along with the other newcomers fitted in seamlessly with the likes of Elisha Clark, Fi and Jenni Shuttleworth, Charlotte Spruzen and Alice Elgar, all long-time servants of the Light Blues and graduating this summer.
“It was so emotional at the end, it looked like we lost because everyone was crying,” said Fi Shuttleworth, who was making her 50th appearance for the Light Blues and earning her fourth Blue.
“The experience from having such a rubbish year, and being able to come together and play this type of quick rugby, did suit us.”
And Jenni said: “That was the best Varsity Match that we’ve played in. We dominated from the word go. We’ve never played like that before and it was so much fun.
“We just played our game, we took control and it has been such a difficult season but we played so well.
“We haven’t played together before, and you wouldn’t know it looking at us. We put a lot of effort into the one set-piece we did have, our line-out, and you could tell as we dominated.
“It is from hard work by Anna Park, our line-out leader, and Anna Stodter, leading us as our coach – without those two it wouldn’t have been like that.”
It should not be assumed that the success was solely based on the forwards though.
When Cambridge saw a chink in the Dark Blue line, they went for it.
There were plenty of line breaks, it was just the Oxford blitz defence held up really well.
It must also not be forgotten that the vanquished struck first.
Some good driving play led to Bianca Coltellini going over for Oxford after just four minutes, but if one was needed, that was the wake-up call for Cambridge.
The possession had its reward in the 25th minute as Simpson powered through three attempted tackles to touch down in the corner, and Park kicked a brilliant conversion from out wide left on the touchline.
It was a long wait before the scoreboard ticked on again, and that was through a 25-metre penalty in the 74th minute from Park, who won the Bunting-Pegers award for player of the match.
The No 8 was to miss another penalty a bit later, but within a minute the full-time whistle was blown.
“It’s been a really long year, and to culminate in a game like that which is really close is amazing,” said Park.
“This is just intense, it’s a whole new atmosphere.
“I’ve never played in a stadium this big so I think I just brought this extra level of intensity.
“Also, the rivalry adds a whole new layer so I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a game switched on for that level of intensity from the first minute.
“We put in a really big shift and a lot of hard work, it’s been an 18-month pre-season which is crazy and is a testament to the commitment of the team just how much work we were able to put in to culminate after an exam term.
“All credit to Oxford as well for really making us work.
“We came into the game and got hit really hard and came back to challenge that.”