Described as ‘a mixed season’ by Football Blues captain Jack Fletcher, the Blues have been strong at home all year – losing just one league fixture at Iffley through a last minute goal by a capable Nottingham side who head the BUCS division. With veterans Ezra Rubenstein and Peder Beck-Friis firing on all cylinders, the team have played attacking football and improved significantly throughout the course of the campaign. Though having lost three times on their travels so far, many by unfortunate errors and narrow margins, the Blues have chalked up vital positive results in a 3-1 victory over Worcester and a creditable 0-0 draw against Coventry in games that Fletcher said would ‘define our season’. Having secured 4 out of a possible 6 points against opponents in similar and precarious positions in the table the Blues were able to secure Midalnds 1A league survival for another season, finishing 3rd behind dominant Nottingham and Birmingham sides. Facing a large turnover of players and transition in personnel last summer, Fletcher has confronted similar challenges to that of David Moyes, though with arguably greater success – a 1-0 victory over UCD and a 3-1 triumph over Trinity College Dublin in the unbeaten Tour of Ireland showing the force and potential of the current crop. New boys Brook Tozer and Mike Essman have added bite and flair to the midfield, while healthy competition has kept all players on their toes.
The Blues now begin to look to Varsity on the 6th of April at Craven Cottage. In a game to be played immediately before the boat race, the team are excited to play at such a prestigious venue and in-front of a large crowd, who will experience great views of both the football and the river following the match, witnessing both of Oxford’s latest high-profile sporting endeavours. Fletcher summarised the Blues’ chances and feelings by saying, ‘The Varsity matches are always one-off occasions – we unfortunately don’t play at Craven Cottage every week – and form tends to go out of the window, so there is no doubt that it will be a very tight contest. The team and I are incredibly excited to play at a Premier League ground in the heart of London and we hope we can make amends for Varsity defeats last year’. With Cambridge having faced a similar mixed season, this season’s Varsity seems too close to call and promises to be an incredibly tense and exciting affair. Following last season’s close 3-2 defeat at Selhurst Park, Oxford have added incentive to go one step better and once again hang dark blue ribbons from the Varsity trophy.
The Blues will continue to train throughout Easter, with the much anticipated final squad announcement coming in the week leading up to the match. Defender Ben May and the Captain himself will hope to be fit for this year’s squad, having missed out through illness and injury respectively last time around. With so many new players in the squad, competition is stiff and training has become noticeably more intense, with every player raising the bar in their respective positions. This can only strengthen the Blues in their attempt to return the Varsity trophy to it’s spiritual home at Iffley Road. Supporters can buy tickets for the event now on the Fulham FC website or by contacting current University players – at a bargain price for what promises to be a fantastic afternoon of the beautiful game at a historic venue.
Mansfield Road Women completed a resounding 5-0 victory over Worcester Women in their Saturday afternoon clash at the University Club grounds. It marked an impressive start to the season for Road as they look to build on their league winning campaign last year.
Mansfield certainly got the better of the opening exchanges, and took a two goal lead within the first ten minutes. Skillful play from Road’s number ten Katie Warnaby saw her play in her namesake Katie Wright, who completed a neat finish to the bottom right of goal.
The Warnaby-Wright partnership, which linked up well all afternoon, combined again not long after to force an own goal from the unfortunate Worcester centre-back.
Worcester responded by bringing on two substitutes, which did seem to make a difference, settling them down into a better rhythm. Despite this, they struggled to clear their defensive lines throughout the first half and suffered for it, giving the ball away too cheaply in the middle of the park. On the rare occasion that they were able to break, a lack of forward support saw their attacks swiftly break down against a well-organised Mansfield back line.
Worcester’s best moment of the half came from a speculative effort from Zara Pollard, driving in a shot from five yards outside the penalty area which was saved comfortably by the Road keeper. Unfortunately for Worcester, the end of the first half was a mirror image of the opening, as Mansfield saw their pressure rewarded with two goals in quick succession. Clare Allsop scrambled the ball in after a smart interchange of play from Kat Coyte and Kim Cowan, then Katie Wright saw her shot from just inside the area deflected into the back of the net.
Despite the intimidating first half deficit, Worcester’s second half response gave them something to be proud of. Careful to sharpen up defensively, they made sure they committed numbers on the break and in the end probably deserved better than the final result.
In truth, however, Mansfield Road’s organisation, structure of play and familiarity of their team mates game made them deserving victors. Road seemed a yard faster and a lot stronger than Worcester during much of the game, and their formidable attacking presence caused their opponents constant problems.
There were glimpses of what Worcester could be capable of, particularly in the final quarter of the match, but a late resurgence could do nothing about the final outcome, which was topped off by Katie Wright, Road’s best player of the match. Driving a shot from just outside the area, it was too much for the Worcester keeper to handle, making the final 5-0 scoreline an improvement on the last time the two teams met in November last year, where Mansfield Road ran out 4-0 winners.
On the strength of this performance Mansfield Road look like strong contenders for the Women’s First Division, while Worcester, despite their second half rejuvenation, have plenty of work to do.
St Catherine’s 6
Fresh from Cuppers victory in Trinity term, but with a new-look team, St Catz looked to the fixture against Jesus with optimism, on the back of an unbroken run of victories that stretches as far back as last November. The match promised to be a lively affair from kick-off, with Catz dominating possession across the midfield, yet being denied clear goal scoring opportunities by a stoic Jesus defence.
However, the deadlock was broken after fifteen minutes by a looping aerial shot courtesy of Lucia Groizard, following some good link-up play down the Catz right. Catz doubled their lead within five minutes, with Amy Trenter’s clearance from a Jesus attack finding the able feet of Groizard who nestled the ball in the bottom left corner for her second. On the brink of half-time Catz made it 3, with some excellent midfield play from fresher Grace Kneafsey finding captain Anna Wakelin on the edge of the box, who fired home.
Jesus came out fighting in the second half, with some good spells of possession across their midfield, but any hopes of a valiant comeback were sadly dashed by the completion of Groizard’s hat-trick, from an excellent pass by Megan Alexander on the right. Once the fourth goal had been scored, Jesus struggled to get the ball out of their own half, and were faced with an onslaught of Catz chances, fresher Ananya Birla coming close on many occasions.
An unfortunate handball in the box lead to Trenter converting from the penalty spot for St Catz’ fifth, and not long after Birla scored a well-deserved goal from the edge of the penalty box to make it six to Catz. Jesus should be credited with a plucky and determined performance, and both teams have plenty of positives to take away into their next fixtures.
Somerville Women inflicted a sound 2-0 defeat upon Foxes on a rain-soaked Wolfson pitch on Sunday afternoon. In blustery and wet conditions, the weakened Foxes side found themselves muscled out of the midfield and it was only last-ditch defending, and profligacy by the Somerville attack, that prevented the match seeing a cricket scoreline.
Owing to a shortage of players, Foxes began the match with just ten men, a disadvantage in numbers that showed most prominently in the middle of the park that formed the centrepiece for the accomplished Somerville passing game. The numbers in the midfield were unbalanced and the Foxes attack struggled to assert itself, reduced to a few scattered and optimistic runs into the Somerville half. Midway through the first period the traffic was one way and it began to look increasingly inevitable that the Foxes defence would break. A series of good chances went begging for the Somerville attacking line before, five minutes from the break, striker Lena Naassana opened the scoring. A corner came in from the right and, as the Foxes defence faffed about getting it clear, Naassana bundled the ball home to deservedly give the lead to Somerville. With one period of play finished, the 1-0 scoreline was flattering to Foxes if anything, as the Somerville attack had been applying all the pressure and let a host of good chances go begging.
The picture didn’t improve for Foxes in the second half, as they lost another player (apparently to a more important appointment) during the break. However they started brightly enough, applying early pressure and making one of a very few forays into the Somerville box. Two minutes later, however, Naassana scored a second time to effectively put the game beyond doubt. Taking the ball on the left hand side of the Foxes box she curled an effort into the far corner of the goal and doubled the Somerville lead. From here it was not a question of whether Somerville would win, but by how many. It was a testament to their resistance that the scoreline remained only 2-0 through the rest of the half. Somerville did themselves no favours, however, as they continued to be wasteful with the ball on the attack. This was a game that could so easily have been a rout, and 2-0 does little to convey the dominance of the Somerville players.
It remains early in the College League season and although Somerville will have come up smiling from this particular game, the Foxes team can take their staunch defending as a heartening positive to carry forward into their next match.
St John’s 0
Newly promoted Merton/Mansfield didn’t lose a single league fixture last season, meaning this year they find themselves in Division Two, facing the likes of last year’s Cuppers Champions, St Catz College. But, undaunted by their own success, they look set to continue their good form after a well-earned 1-0 defeat of St John’s.
In the opening minutes Merton/Mansfield came under tremendous pressure from an experienced John’s side. Habiba Daggash made life difficult for the defence, threatening several goals in the first half, but Merton/Mansfield keeper Sophie Smith denied her every opportunity with some confident saves.
After forty minutes of play and no goals it looked as though the two sides had reached something of a stalemate and a goalless draw seemed like. However, Merton/Mansfield striker, Natasha Stotesdbury, came up with the goods in spectacular style with a run in from the corner and a looping shot which sailed over the St John’s keeper and into the net.
All the M&Ms then had to do was hold off the St John’s attack for a further twenty minutes in order to secure their first three points of the season. This proved to be easier said than done when St John’s, led by captain Madeleine Forman, stepped up their efforts inside the Merton/Mansfield penalty area. One shot deflected tantalisingly off the post whilst another looked sure to go in before it was expertly tipped over the bar by Smith, who was easily St John’s biggest obstacle in the game.
To the frustration of St John’s, the Merton/Mansfield defence was a tough nut to crack thanks to the efforts of centre backs Jess Odone and Imy Buchan, and the elusive equaliser never came, leaving the final score at 1-0 to the M&Ms.
Oxford’s best long-distance runners were on full display on a grey Saturday, as Cuppers Cross Country took over South Parks for an afternoon of impressive endurance.
Following a strong turn-out, including several impressive performances from freshers, the Dark Blues are hoping that both men’s and women’s teams can be triumphant at the annual Varsity Cross Country match against Cambridge at Wimbledon Common in December.
The hills and mud of South Parks made for a tough course, not too dissimilar from Wimbledon, and it is hoped that running the trial race on such a testing circuit will help prepare the Oxford squad for the race that awaits them on seventh December.
Eight men and six women can be selected for the Blues’ team, with further squads selected for the seconds’ and thirds’ match the week before at Shotover.
Former England Junior International Cross Country runner Tom Frith of St Anne’s made it a hattrick of Cuppers titles, taking victory over the near 10K distance by a clear margin. The fourth-year Physics student hopes that he can enjoy his best ever finish in the Varsity match in six weeks time:
“The course was a good representation of the Varsity match, so I’m pleased to put in a decent performance. It is my last year so I am doing everything I can to help the team win the prestigious title of Varsity champions!”
Next across the line was first-year undergraduate Will Christofi, followed by Worcester’s Adam Speake.
The women’s race was also highly competitive, with three athletes getting away on the uphill section on the second lap three, with American graduate student Claire McIlvennie taking victory ahead of last year’s Blue’s member Joanna Klaptocz. German international triathlete Sophie Saller completed the top three.
Club captain Naomi Webber was thrilled the standard of running on display: “It was a really good day. The course was hard but everyone coped well. There was so much fantastic new talent out running – we have great strength in depth this year, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming matches against Cambridge.”
Pouring rain did little to hamper the mood at the annual Oxford Athletics Cuppers on Sunday, with students doing their best to provide a ray of sunshine amid the darkened skies.
Ultimately, Keble took top honours in the college stakes with 173 points to St John’s 106, and 36 cuppers standards were achieved by a total of 53 athletes. with the afternoon providing a useful warm up for many dark blues ahead of Varsity later in the year.
Standout performances came from last year’s BUCS 4x400m bronze medallist George Grundle (St Johns) who stretched his legs over 400m to win in 51.9s, while his medal-winning teammate Adam McBraida (Jesus) won the 200m by five seconds in 27.1s.
Louis Gardner (Lady Margaret Hall) impressed to take the 800m title in 2:05.7, whilst Ian Shevlin (St Catherines) was the only man sub-12 in the 100m, clocking 11.9s.
In the field, triple jumper Sam Trigg (Worcester) tried his hand at high jump, taking victory with 1.75m, while Tom Cross (Kellogg) won the javelin with 37.16m.
On the women’s side, Emily Stone showed her potential as a sprinter, taking the 100m in 13.6, before showing her versatility with 5.02m in the long jump and 24.42m in the javelin.
Stone, of Hertford, ended up as the top-scoring female athlete, racking up an impressive 83 points, while it was Justin Leung of Keble who took the men’s honour with 50 points.
In what were treacherous conditions for hurdling, Heli Copley (Keble) played a valuable role in helping her college to win the competition, by claiming maximum points in the 100m in 18.8s., with Christina Nick (Pembroke) winning the discus with 26.54m.
Even more exciting is that Oxford has many more blues and new athletes to strengthen the dark blue contingent in time for Varsity and BUCS.
Reigning champions Worcester overcame a half-time deficit to beat Premier League newcomers Balliol in a game that should be remembered for a laudable act of sportsmanship by the Balliol captain Alex Hawkins-Hooker, who allowed Worcester to use rolling subs to prevent them being reduced to 10 men.
It was also a match that, despite the final result, proved that Balliol will be no pushovers this season, as the Jowett Walk side pushed their opponents to the limit with an impressive passing game and tireless work ethic.
Displaying the sort of discipline that comes from having retained the bulk of last season’s Division One-winning side, Balliol started the game the brighter of the two sides, with Freshers Du’Aine Davis and Loz Warner contributing to a fluid possession game that Worcester seemed unable to cope with.
Despite all Balliol’s good work, however, it was a Worcester error that led to the first goal, as Jack Hostick stole the ball from the Worcester defence before rounding the ‘keeper and slotting home. It was a composed finish that showed every sign of Hostick being able to make the step up to the top division, having ended last season as college football’s leading scorer.
The goal made little difference to the flow of the game, with Tom Phelan unable to make much headway against Balliol’s five-man midfield, and although neither goalkeeper had much to do, Balliol’s extra pace on the wings meant that they would possibly have been disappointed to go into the break only one up.
Worcester came out the stronger in the second half, but they were helped by a sporting gesture from Alex Hawkins-Hooker. After a combination of injuries and unexpected player departures left Worcester facing playing the majority of the second half with ten men, the Balliol ‘skipper allowed them to bring on an already-substituted player so they could finish the match with their full contingent.
The current league and Cuppers champions took full advantage, and it was Tang-Wright who proved the inspiration. After a sustained spell of Worcester pressure, the winger powered past George Colenutt and, with two men in pink waiting in the middle for the cut-back, instead drove the ball low past Balliol ‘keeper Adam Laycock at the near post.
That was the break Worcester needed, and they made it two not long after when the Balliol defence failed to deal with a long punt forward, and the Worcester forward slotted.
Balliol were not to be fazed, however, and they drew themselves level when some composed play from Hawkins-Hooker at the back started a move that ended with Jack Hostick, who was clinical as ever in when put through one-on-one.
It was not to be for Balliol however, and the winning goal came with 10 minutes to go. A Worcester corner was headed home by Tang-Wright for his second of the game, and despite some sustained Balliol pressure late on, Worcester held on.
Balliol vice-captain Adam Laycock was proud of his team’s performance, despite the result: “The fact that we’re disappointed having lost to last season’s best side shows how well we performed.”
The record books will show the final score was 3-2, but Hawkins-Hooker’s gesture to Worcester, encapsulating the spirit of college football, should also be remembered.
Fans were already awaiting a feast of football this Michaelmas with El Clasico, the Tyne-Wear derby and the first Premier League meeting of Cardiff and Swansea on our screens in the coming weeks. Today, the Cuppers’ draw threw up a rivalry which trumps them all.
All eyes will be on Abingdon Road in 3rd Week as Brasenose take on their oldest foes, Lincoln. The sides have not locked swords since the Turl Street College dispatched their hosts 3-1 in February last year. They will also meet twice in the League following Lincoln’s relegation from the JCR Premiership.
Having scooped the trophy 14 times, Brasenose have the superior Cuppers history. Lincoln, however, have the recent pedigree. In 2010 they won the trophy as a 3rd Divison side, beating St Catz 4-0 at Iffley Road, and suffered extra-time heartbreak at the hands of Wadham in last season’s semi-final.
“It’s always a big match for Brasenose against Lincoln. Being drawn against them, especially in the first round of Cuppers, is huge,” said Brasenose captain Pelham Barron. “It will definitely be exciting, a must-watch game. I have great confidence in my squad, and a win here could be just the sort of push we need to make a deep run in the tournament.”
Alex Wilson, the Lincoln captain, said: “I was gutted we couldn’t go all the way last year but we’re determined to make it to Iffley this time and look forward to getting our campaign off to a flying start by putting a few past Brasenose.”
The draw has also pitted Christ Church against neighbours Pembroke. Christ Church were knocked out by Wadham in last season’s quarters which left them still in search of that elusive 10th Cuppers crown.
Brazil were famously awarded possession of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970 for all eternity after winning three World Cups. Having won the last three finals, it is surprising that Worcester haven’t petitioned OUAFC to keep the Cuppers trophy.
Yet a fourth successive title will not be walk in the park. Worcester’s “golden generation” has all-but-graduated, leaving their new recruits to tackle Merton/Mansfield in the first round. Wadham, who Worcester swept aside to complete their Cuppers hat-trick, have an easier ride. They are one of four teams to receive a bye.
A tricky test awaits them in the second round, however. They will play the winners of Corpus/Linacre’s clash with New, who reached the semi-finals last time.
Cuppers Round 1
LMH v Magdalen
Worcester v Merton/Mansfield
Oriel v Queen’s
St Hildas v Somerville
Teddy Hall v Univ
Exeter v St John’s
Brasenose v Lincoln
Trinity v Keble
New v Corpus/Linacre
Pembroke v Christ Church
St Hugh’s v St Anne’s
St Catz v Jesus
Byes: Hertford, St Peter’s, Wadham, Balliol
Ties to be played in 3rd Week
For the freshers among you, that headline you just clicked on may be your first encounter with the University Quidditch Club, or indeed the very idea of Muggle Quidditch. Others may be aware of us, or have even caught a glimpse of our Uni Parks practice sessions. Regardless of your familiarity with Quidditch, the reaction is probably much the same: a sort of confuddled bemusement, followed by a faint chuckle.
Given that Potter-loving and sports-playing Oxfordians combined must equal well over half the student population, why is this such a common reaction? Perhaps it is because neither Potterphiles nor sportspeople can fully grasp Quidditch: the former are perturbed by their beloved fiction’s transformation into a sport in its own right; the latter feel uneasy about a sport that, in its original form, was never intended to be played. We, on the other hand, believe that an introduction to the sport can give the lie to both groups’ reservations. We’ve come a long way in eight years, and we think what we do merits a response beyond bemusement. Welcome to Quidditch.
The first thing to mention is that yes, we do run around with brooms, and no, we do not aspire to become the world’s first airborne sport. Having to keep a wooden stick between your legs not only looks hilarious, it also serves as a vital handicap to mobility, stability and throwing accuracy. This means that the three Chasers have to develop a precise throwing arm and positional awareness, unless they want to be on the wrong end of Quidditch’s physical contact rules: wrapping, grabbing limbs and tackling to the ground are all condoned and encouraged.
The Chasers’ ultimate goal is to score 10 points by getting the Quaffle (a volleyball, slightly deflated so it can be held with one hand) through the opposing team’s hoops, but being tackled isn’t the only threat they face. Both teams are aided and abetted by a pair of Beaters wielding partially deflated dodgeballs known as Bludgers, which are thrown at opponents to send them back to their hoops. Beaters tend to take a slightly unhealthy relish in this task, neatly epitomised in the technical term ‘facebeat’.
Even if your Beaters manage to gain control of the three Bludgers on pitch and neutralise any opposing Chasers, you still have one final hurdle: the Keeper. Not only are they immune to Bludgers whilst near their hoops, Keepers usually have the physique of a rugby player, with overwhelming stopping power to match. To get past all these hurdles, a team can’t just run blindly into the mêlée – they have to think first.
Of course, while all this is going on, somewhere far outfield the most iconic figure of Quidditch lurks: the Snitch, with two Seekers hot on its tail. And we mean ‘tail’ literally – the Snitch is an actual person, who is caught by grabbing a ‘tail’ consisting of a sock and a tennis ball behind their back.
[caption id="attachment_45362" align="alignnone" width="280"] Picture this, but an actual person[/caption]
Now, to you this may seem ridiculous. You’re right, it is ridiculous, but it is also brilliant. Having our Snitch as an actual person with free roam of Uni Parks gives enormous scope for tactical decisions which often verge on insanity, such as a certain player’s infamous dip in the River Cherwell. Furthermore, when the Snitch eventually returns to the pitch they can grapple, wrestle and throw the Seekers to evade capture, making for a nail-biting finish. A successful Snitch catch is only worth 30 points, rather than Rowling’s 150. However, not only does this balance the game, but it makes the Snitch catch a matter of intricate timing; if your Seeker doesn’t know you’re 40 points behind, their catch could actually lose you the game.
The game outlined above is extremely simplistic, yet I hope it gives you some idea of the pleasure and depth that can be found in Quidditch. I’d also like to think it points to an answer to the ‘reservations’ discussed above: Quidditch is a sport that blends the sublime and the ridiculous, and we welcome people regardless of whether they’re turning up for one , the other, or both.
Over the coming weeks we’ll be introducing you to some of the men and women who play this sport (as in the books, Quidditch is a mixed-gender affair), both in our top-flight Radcliffe Chimeras and our burgeoning second team, the Quidlings, as they discuss their excitement and preparation for the inaugural British Quidditch Cup. This is being hosted by Oxford on the 9th and 10th of November, and promises to be a thrilling event, with a Bangor-Oxford rematch and 16 teams competing. But in the meantime, why take my word for it? We practise at noon every Saturday in University Parks. Look for the hoops.
PHOTOS // torontoist.com harrypotter.wikia.com www.executivequeenoftheworld.blogspot.com
[caption id="attachment_44739" align="aligncenter" width="500"] HCRFC in the British Embassy – Image: Richard Winslett[/caption]
1282: just south of the Oxford city wall Hart Hall is established, becoming Hertford College in 1874. Five thousand miles to the east Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, is opening up trade routes with Europe that will lead his great ambassador Rabban Bar Sauma as far as the court of Edward I in Gascony in 1288.
1963: the UK is among the first western nations to formally recognise diplomatic relations with Mongolia, becoming a major foreign investor in the country and enhancing Mongolia’s prestige in the international community.
2013: on the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and almost three quarters of a millennium since an English King held court with an emissary of Kublai Khan, Hertford College Rugby Club become the first rugby team to officially tour Mongolia in partnership with the Mongolian Rugby Union. They are only the second foreign team ever to play in Mongolia (The Hong Kong Vandals visited in 2012).
Mongolia is not a nation that one would ostensibly associate with team sports. At the pinnacle of the Mongolian sporting calendar is the Naadam: a sporting festival that showcases the best of the ‘eriin gurvan naadam’ or ‘three manly games’: wrestling, archery, and horse racing. All three disciplines test the skill and strength of the individual, rather than the cohesiveness of a group. Mongolia has won 24 Olympic medals since Mexico 68, all of which came from just four individual disciplines: judo, boxing, shooting, and wrestling.
The individualism inherent in Mongolian sport can be seen to reflect its ancient yet ever-pervasive nomadic culture. However, in recent year’s more of the nomadic population have moved to the capital in search of greater prosperity. Many simply establish their ger, a Mongolian nomadic abode similar to a yurt, on the edge of the city and try to find work. It is estimated that 30-40% of the Mongolian population still maintain a nomadic lifestyle making a living from their livestock.
Since the Mongolian Rugby Football Union was established in 2003, rugby has become one of the fastest growing team sports in the country. The national team played their first ever international match against Kyrgyzstan is 2009 resulting in a respectable 38-21 defeat. At the very least we hoped that this trip would contribute in some way to the development of Mongolian rugby.
Some of the more assiduous members of the Hertford touring party had been well acquainted with such background information by a combination of guidebooks and Wikipedia. Others were seasoned veterans of rugby tours, well-versed in the idiosyncratic rules and expectations that govern such a trip. Yet as we walked between the sliding glass doors of Chinggis Khaan National Airport into the bright piercing air of Ulaanbaatar, none of us had any real idea of what to expect.
We had been in Ulaanbaatar for a couple of hours before the tour manager and I were invited to a press conference at the national TV centre. Expecting to be greeted with a couple of guys and a microphone I was slightly thrown off guard at the sight of a room full of journalists; about twenty television cameras; and a similar number of microphones bunched together on a long table. This press conference was going out live on national television.
One journalist asked the seemingly reductive yet perfectly reasonable and difficult question: ‘How good are Hertford College?’ After trying to explain the intricate workings of the ‘cuppers bowl’ competition; John, the team manager, skilfully pointed to the eight players that have gone on to represent England in Hertford’s history. The fact that most of these caps came at the end of the nineteenth century was trivial and hardly worth mentioning.
Rather taken aback at the extent of interest in our presence I asked Austin, the MRFU president, if rugby always gets this much attention in Mongolia? ‘It can if we want it to’ was his laconic response. Indeed the spotlight would remain on us for the duration of our stay: We were to play two matches with a sevens tournament in between, all of which would be played in the national stadium and broadcast live on Mongolian television. Besides our solitary Blue, this was a rather unique scenario for all involved.
[caption id="attachment_44738" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Richard Foord and John Collis at the press conference – Image: MRFU[/caption]
After dumping our stuff in the hostel we headed out into the Gobi for a three night camping and training trip. The journey took six hours along a single road that cut unwaveringly straight into the Mongolian steppe. At 18 ½ players (sorry John) our touring party was small. After half an hour in the Gobi we were one player lighter – Marco our utility back row/prop/occasional winger had torn his hamstring in our first session of light touch rugby.
Undeterred we continued training in the most spectacular expanse of land. The vista was one of sharply lined impenetrable blocks of colour. Clear azure sky rested on yawning green steppe from which rose golden sand dunes to the south. Within this vastness the only impediments to our drills were herds of horses and goats insensibly strolling through our boundless arena. Happily the only further wounds suffered during our desert excursion came in the form of innumerable mosquito bites.
On our return to UB our training facilities had an altogether different feel. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world with a landscape dominated by vast open grasslands, yet somewhat absurdly a significant obstacle for Mongolian rugby is lack of space. Their training ground is a baseball diamond behind Olympic house which is shared with a number of other groups. The only other alternative was to train on a rock hard astro-turf pitch belonging to one of the high schools. However, this lack of facilities is more than compensated by an extremely committed and resolute attitude. In winter the temperature can drop to -40 and Ulaanbaatar holds the honour of the coldest capital city in the world. Rugby training continues regardless.
The evening before the first match we had been invited to a reception at the British embassy for a gentle night of socialising. Several of the expat community were keen to deliver some insider knowledge on the team we would be facing. However, the diversity of their accounts was far from reassuring. One American suggested that the Mongolians were bulldozers who would aim run to straight through us comparatively diminutive Englishmen. By contrast another described their lack of size and reluctance to hit contact, hence a reliance on a skilful and agile backline. We decided that attempts to second guess the opposition were not going to be productive.
We arrived at the national stadium the next morning. The venue is multi-purpose, hosting the Naadam festival as well as athletics events and military showcases. Several bullet casings were removed from our 22 before kickoff.
The game was a close encounter. Our opponents were not the brutes that some led us to believe. What we faced were an extremely well drilled and skilled unit that liked to test the pace and defense of our back line rather than the strength of our forward pack. Hertford took a quick lead from a penalty kicked by Will Dace. A period of pressure from Defense followed, lead to the award of a penalty try. Defense added a further converted try to lead 14-3 at the break. Hertford hit back soon after through a quick tap penalty taken by Harry Horner, catching the opposition off guard. Will Dace added the conversion. Hertford looked far more settled and assured in the second half with Henry Hughes adding a further score within the final ten minutes taking the scored to 16-14. Hertford looked favourites for a first tour win. However, within the final five minutes Defense broke through on the left flank to record the winning points. The try was converted for a final score of 21-16 to Defense University. Henry Hughes was named Man of the match.
[caption id="attachment_44736" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Hertford College and Defense University – Image: MRFU[/caption]
At the post match meal we socialised with our opponents and were amazed to find that some players had been training for over a year without playing a full competitive match. The old clichés are often the most appropriate and we found that our shared experience through sport overcame any language barriers. Mongolian opponents became friends as we discussed in broken English and hand gestures the moment when that prop made all those big tackles, or when that player made that break and scored that try. Our disappointment in being defeated soon gave way to a sense of satisfaction that we had been beaten by a skilful team that were gracious in victory.
After the long build up and intense release of the first game it seemed a sampling of Mongolian night life was appropriate. We were lead to ‘Brix club’ by some local friends. Dressed in scarlet tour blazers we weren’t the most subtle of revellers and several Mongolians recognised us as ‘that rugby team from England’. It seemed that some people were actually watching.
Our next sporting engagement was the sevens tournament, made up of ourselves and the four other club teams playing in a round robin format. After the first match our overriding opinion of Mongolian rugby players was that they were skilful, agile, and liked to ship the ball out wide. Naturally they were quite good at sevens. Any nerves we had were effectively exorcised by the first match so we played with much greater fluidity and composure coming second overall and losing only one match to the eventual winners. Sam Lipetz scored many tries whilst Harry Wetherald was named man of the tournament. Unfortunately, scrum half Alex Monk managed to tear his hamstring in the act of scoring a try and I was concussed by a rogue Mongolian knee. We would both be ruled out of the final match two days later. Miraculously, Marco would recover enough from his hamstring tear just over a week ago in the Gobi to play the entire match at Prop.
Between the sevens tournament and the final match we found time to visit the Lotus Children’s orphanage on the outskirts of UB. Set in extensive grounds, the children made the most of being able to play outside in the warm weather. For many of the team the visit was the highlight of the trip. The children were full of energy and had a wicked sense humour. We donated toys and games as well as playing an unconventional game of rugby together; some of the basic rugby skills on show putting a certain seafaring team member to shame.
[caption id="attachment_44745" align="aligncenter" width="375"] Lotus Orphanage: Prop Harry Jackson tackled by many Mongolians – image: David Franklin[/caption]
With a day to go before the last game the murmurings of uncertainty that accompanied the first game started up again. Would they field members of the national team? Would they be a lot bigger? The Defense University team was made entirely of university students our own age. The Ulaanbaatar Warriors were a club team full of older, more experienced players.
The match was an evening kickoff played under floodlights in front of a much fuller crowd, among which sat the English ambassador and his family. Despite being relegated to the sidelines through injury I lead the team out and lined up for the Mongolian national anthem. The cameraman passed through our team giving the audience a brief profile of each player. Our hopes of singing ‘God Save the Queen’ were unfortunately unsubstantiated; although with a Norwegian/Somali national among our ranks it wasn’t strictly appropriate.
The UB warriors played a much more direct game than the university team, repeatedly testing our strength around the fringes. The opening twenty minutes were very physical and cagey. UB asserted their undoubted dominance in the scrum by lifting up our front row. However Hertford effectively pinned UB down with accurate kicks for territory. UB eventually broke the deadlock working an overlap on the right wing to score in the corner. However, Hertford struck back quickly: stand-in scrum half Will Dace broke the UB line with a characteristic dummy before feeding Henry Hughes on his shoulder to run in the try. Hertford led 7-5 and looked more than a match for the physically imposing Mongolians. However, just before half time our opponents took the lead through typically direct play; taking a quick penalty and powering through a momentary lapse in defense. The try was converted to give UB a 12-7 lead at half time.
Due to injuries, and our resistance to the many kind offers from members of the expatriate community to play for us, we only had one substitute. However having been hardened on the fields of college rugby where 15 players is considered a luxury, Hertford battled on against a team reinforced with substitutes in another tense and edgy forty minutes. Hertford threatened throughout yet the dominance of the UB forwards made it difficult to string many phases together and we couldn’t quite finish moves off from promising field positions. As resolute as UB were, our resistance was equally staunch. Ultimately no team made a breakthrough and the game ended in a well earned victory for UB 12-7. Harry Wetherald was named MOTM for us, whilst their number three was awarded Mongolian MOTM for his scrimmaging and dangerous play in the loose. Particular mention must go to the Hertford front row who faced two formidable Mongolian national wrestlers at 1 and 3, yet fought through a full eighty minutes.
Hertford had lost twice in two close encounters. We were exhausted, bruised, and disappointed. However for a rugby union that is trying to spread the appeal of the game to a wider audience the two tense and exciting matches that Hertford played a part in couldn’t have provided a better advert for this strange, new, and dynamic team game called Rugby.
At the post match meal that night we spread ourselves out among our Mongolian counterparts, chatting, drinking, and eating. They thanked us for coming and we thanked them for having us. Once again the disappointment of losing was tempered by the sense that we had been a part of something significant; something adventurous and a little bit strange that had never been done before.
The next morning we were to fly home. Undeterred we were led to ‘Brix’ club by Adam Munkhbayar, a Mongolian TV personality that happened to play 6 (sometimes 7) for the national team; who could do a mean Psy impression; and who happened to know the guy at Brix who could got us a private karaoke room in the back. Testament to the frankly surreal nature of the trip as a whole, we spent our last night drinking free beer and whiskey with a group of Mongolian rugby players singing Elton John and Shania Twain singles.
Hertford College Rugby Club will be vying for promotion to Oxford University Division four next term, as well as offering stiff defence of their Cuppers bowl crown. Plans for next year’s tour are already in the pipeline.
[caption id="attachment_44737" align="aligncenter" width="375"] Sevens Tournament, players from Hertford and Warriors RFC – Image: Richard Foord[/caption]