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By Alex Tyndall
A dramatic second-half fightback from Oxford won them the 131st Varsity match, their third in a row, at Twickenham.
Having won the previous two editions of the Varsity match, Oxford were narrow favourites to take the crown once again at Twickenham. John Carter’s side started the match on the defensive, with the Cambridge backs’ kicking game giving them two converted penalties within the first eight minutes of the match. During the match’s opening exchanges, running play was characterised by feisty defending coupled with some fairly scrappy offensive play. After twenty minutes, Cambridge held a 9-0 lead, all courtesy of full back Rob Stephen’s kicking boot, and were the dominant force in the game, limiting the Dark Blues to sporadic, tentative forays into the Cambridge half. Twenty-five minutes in, Oxford kicker Cassian Bramham Law looped a penalty between the uprights for Oxford’s first points of the match, although the same passage of play saw captain John Carter leave the field with a knee injury. Another penalty for Oxford on the half hour mark seemed to show them in the ascendancy in the minutes before half time, but five minutes before the break Cambridge’s number 14 Andy Murdoch charged over the line for the first try of the match, converted by Rob Stephen to bring the score at the break to 16-6 in favour of Cambridge.
The start of the second half did not bode much better for Oxford, as they gave up another converted penalty shortly after the restart. However, with the scores at 19-6 Oxford began to press. They camped firmly in the Cambridge 22 and finally the pressure broke as full back Sam Egerton scored a try on the left wing to bring Oxford into double figures. From then the play flowed almost exclusively in Oxford’s favour, with a second try scored by James Harris ten minutes after the first. With both teams tiring it was the Oxford pack which remained strongest as they demonstrated by forcing the Cambridge forwards out of the Oxford twenty-two after a defensive line out. Substitute Charlie Marr then scored and converted a try under the sticks to give Oxford a 23-19 lead. With time running out Cambridge launched one last desperate offensive and at one point even had Oxford standing on their own try line. However, with a minute to spare in the game Charlie Marr converted a penalty from thirty five metres out to put the match beyond Cambridge.
The weakness of Oxford in the opening moments of the game, to concede nine points in as many minutes, was matched only by their sheer tenacity as they fought back in the second half. It was remarkable that the first truly threatening offensive from Oxford led to Egerton’s try, and perhaps it was only after this catalyst that Oxford showed the quality that was clearly present in the squad, with no less than seven players with previous Varsity experience, a Swiss international and three Premiership standard players. Doubtless the loss of Carter in the first half will have unsettled Oxford, but they showed their mental strength in the second half and they have come away with a win that they fully deserve to enjoy.