Spirited 14-man Cambridge University suffer defeat to Oxford in the 140th Varsity Match at Twickenham
A spirited second-half display could not stop 14-man Cambridge University losing 21-17 to Oxford University in the 140th Varsity Match at Twickenham.
It was two extremely contrasting 40 minutes, but for the Light Blues the damage was done in the first half as they faced a 21-0 deficit at the break and a player light after a red card for Charlie Friend.
However, captain Charlie Watson will take great pride with the character and heart show by his depleted team in the second period.
Within a minute in the first half, the task facing Cambridge became mountainous.
As a sniping move by Oxford scrum-half Callum Grant created space for Luke Wyllie to cut in off the wing and touch down in the ninth minute, worse was unfolding for the Light Blues.
Captain Stephen Leonard, who was deputising for the injured Watson, had his head in his hands outside the 5m line knowing that his game was up with what looked like an ankle injury.
And referee Andrew Jackson was looking at an alleged stamp by Friend, which resulted in the Cambridge lock being shown a red card.
So they had gone from scoreless and a full compliment to a converted try, a player and their on-field captain down inside a minute.
It almost felt that the crowd at Twickenham went as flat as the game knowing that the contest would be as good as over.
When field position is so important, getting out of their own territory was going to be an uphill task being a man light.
Toby Flood and Jamie Benson were doing all they could to probe and prod with their kicking, but while that got them into the Oxford half, it did give their rivals the ball. In many ways, it was a no-win situation.
Oxford kicked to touch from a penalty and from the resulting line-out, Nick Civetta touched down their second try - with it being awarded on the say so of the TMO - in the 23rd minute and David Wilkinson landed another conversion.
There was some big defence from Cambridge to beat back their opponents, but the margin of error was so slim for any mistakes.
An Oxford scrum that had already looked powerful was further emboldened by being a player to the good, and in the 33rd minute, Andrew Durutalo peeled off the back of one such set piece to touch down a third try for Oxford. Wilkinson’s conversion made it 21-0 and it remained that way at half time.
However, Cambridge came out as an unrecognisable side in the second half and that also galvanised the crowd.
You would not think that they had a man less as they were making all the running.
They were trying to avoid contact by moving Oxford around the pitch, sniping at the fringes of the breakdown and adding width to their game.
It was clearly stretching the Dark Blues in the first 10 minutes as the penalty count was slowly building, and the only thing missing was some clear line breaks.
The TMO was called into action in the 56th minute when Alex King kicked to the corner and Dougal Russell attempted to touch down, but it was judged not to have been grounded in time.
There was a further blow for Cambridge when Ben Jackson went off injured, as did the Cambridge physio, who had fallen awkwardly when rushing onto the pitch.
It was a long stoppage for Jackson and you were left to wonder whether the Light Blues could find the same tempo and rhythm on resumption of play. The breathing space did definitely favour the Dark Blues, who regained their edge for a spell but then the Light Blues got their momentum going again.
A delightful prod through by Flood had Russell scampering away again and it was just about grounded by an Oxford defender, on the advice of the TMO.
That was played under a penalty advantage, and from the subsequent infringement, Cambridge kicked to the corner and Luke Parry touched down. Benson's conversion attempt hit both posts and stayed out.
From the restart, Demi Obembe regained possession and charged through from deep inside his own half to score a memorable try in the corner. Yet again, though, Benson's conversion struck an upright.
It made it 21-10, which was full credit to Cambridge who could quite easily have gone into their shell after that difficult first half.
There was a final, deserved hurrah.
Having hit the line again and again, they went left and Flood found a rampaging Alex King who burst through to touch down. Benson landed the conversion to leave it at 21-17.
The Light Blues may well have lost but there should be great pride in the way that they responded to all those setbacks and, in many ways, to look the better side for much of the second half.
Scorers: 9min Wylie try - Wilkinson con (0-7), 23 Civetta try - Wilkinson con (0-14), 33 Durutalo try - Wilkinson con (0-21), 80 Parry try (5-21), 80+1 Obembe try (10-21), 80+18 King try - Benson conversion (17-21).