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Varsity Match 2023: Cambridge University RUFC men’s head coach James Shanahan urges players to prove they are strongest squad since he took charge

As the old saying goes the proof will be very much in the pudding, yet head coach James Shanahan believes he has been able to assemble the strongest Cambridge University Rugby Club men’s squad for a Varsity Match during his tenure.

Cambridge will renew the old rivalry with their Oxford counterparts at Twickenham on Saturday (March 25) looking to halt the opposition’s bid to make it a straight hat-trick of victories after their success of 2021 and 2022.

And for Shanahan, who will be leading Cambridge into this showcase fixture for a 10th time, he feels that collectively the current group are the best he has had at his disposal.

Cambridge University RUFC’s men's head coach James Shanahan. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University RUFC’s men's head coach James Shanahan. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I know it’s usually coy as a coach not to say how strong you feel or how strong the squad is, but if I’m being honest, I think it’s the best 23 I’ve been able to select in my time at Cambridge University,” he said.

“That is maybe not man for man, but as a collective – as a 15 and as a 23 – it is probably the strongest in 10 years here.

“That’s pleasing but obviously having your strongest squad doesn’t mean you’re going to guarantee a win. It doesn’t mean you’re going to come out on top, you have to perform on the day and there are many times in a Varsity game where the so-called favourites or the supposed best team doesn’t get the result.

Toby Flood will miss the Varsity Match through injury. Picture: Keith Heppell
Toby Flood will miss the Varsity Match through injury. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I’m really happy with the squad and the point we’ve got to, but we still need to perform and that is the key thing. Anything can happen on the day. The occasion can get to you, the way you want to play and even the weather – there are a lot of things that can impact players and teams.

“We’re trying to tick and cover all of those boxes, but obviously we’re going to be up against 23 Oxford men that want to get their third win on the bounce and will be gunning for us.

“It’s going to be a tough game, it always is, but like I say this is the strongest we’ve been so now we need to go and perform.”

On paper at least, the squad in question looks to be well balanced. Seven of the 23 are Blues, having had previous experience of the fixture, while many others have played rugby to a high standard.

Yet one notable omission is Toby Flood. The former England international had been due to lead Cambridge out for what was likely to be his final ever appearance, but he suffered a serious ankle and leg injury during November’s annual Steele-Bodgers clash.

Sixty-capped Flood will now have to make do with a watching brief, although Shanahan has praised the impact he has been able to have on the squad since being sidelined.

“We’re gutted for Toby, it probably would have been his last game of rugby,” added Shanahan.

“As our captain, as our leader, this wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. He was working so hard to get back and he was probably only a couple of weeks or so shy of making it.

“If the game had been April 23 or something like that he’d have probably made it so big credit to him for pushing himself.

“He’s been involved a lot. We talk regularly and he’s been involved in selection. He is great around the training and he has little conversations with Jamie Benson at 10 because Toby is obviously an international fly-half and Jamie is an Under-20. He’s learning from Toby.

“Toby’s got a real understanding of the game and he doesn’t suffer fools. He can be pretty harsh and abrupt and just tells you how it is, which is a good thing and it gets the message across.

“It’s been great working with him and while it’s a shame that he’s not going to be on the field, he has been a big part – like Charlie Watson last year – off the field.”

The aforementioned Benson is at the other end of the scale to Flood. The Harlequins academy graduate is an England Under-20 international widely regarded to have a bright future ahead of him.

And as far as replacements for Flood go, Shanahan is more than satisfied with his alternative option, who also featured in last year’s defeat.

“We’re lucky that we’ve got someone like Jamie Benson to come in. That’s a quality fly-half we’ve got in the squad,” he said.

“In previous years if you lose your fly-half you’re probably left to try and build a makeshift one, but luckily for us we’ve got Jamie. He’s been playing really well and running the team really well.

“We’re disappointed for Toby of course, but I’m more than happy with what we’ve got coming in at fly-half.”

While Cambridge lead the overall head-to-head record by a slender 64-62 margin, there is no doubt that Oxford have been the fixture’s dominant force in recent memory.

Since 2008 they have prospered on 10 occasions, including a six-match winning streak between 2010 and 2015.

However, having shown great spirit to only lose 21-17 12 months ago when at one stage Oxford threatened to run away it, Shanahan is hoping more of that character comes to the fore and this time leads to a first win since 2019.

“It always seems to go in cycles. Oxford recently have had really strong teams, very physical and very experienced. They’ve had a lot of post-grads and we had a lot of under-grads, which meant we were always having to be physically at our best and then everything had to go for us.

“You saw last year the character and the tenacity of the guys. In the first 10 minutes we conceded a red card, lost our captain and then a try. All of sudden it’s 21-0 at half-time and if you’re honest as a coach, I turned to my assistants and said that it could be 50 (points) and get really ugly.

“We hoped we could get to half-time and have a chat because we were shell shocked. We had a really good chat, very calm and very collective, and the boys went out there and really expressed themselves. To get that back to 21-17, that was an outstanding effort and a moral victory. It doesn’t count for anything and when you look at the history books all you see is an Oxford win, but I felt that group really stood up in the second half.

“They didn’t concede a point and potentially if they’d been a little bit longer (to play) you never know, we could have snuck a victory or if a couple of Jamie’s kicks that hit both posts go over you’re looking at 21-all.

“We don’t want Oxford to do the treble. I’ve been involved in that before when I first arrived and it’s pretty tough.

“We’ve got the strongest squad I believe so it’s up to us to step up and perform.

“We’re not talking about winning or losing, we’ve been talking about trusting in what we’re doing, believing in it. Even when we’re under pressure we’ve got to continue doing what we want to do and know that it’s going to work for us.”

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