Cambridge Rattle Oxford in the First Battle of the Blues

A rather empty stadium saw the kickoff of the first ever Ladies Varsity match to be played at Twickenham. The 29th instalment of the fixture saw the two prestigious Universities, captained in dark blue by Scrum Half Carly May Bliss, and in light blue by lock Nikki Weckman, take to the hallowed English turf. With pulses racing, the national anthem was sung proudly, and the 2015 Women’s Varsity Match was soon underway.

Cambridge showed early dominance, winning a couple of turnovers, but neither side was able to venture anywhere near the opposition’s 22. Cambridge wing Lara Gibson showed her potential with good speed, but both teams were fairly evenly matched for the game’s opening period.

Thirteen minutes in, the first sign of Cambridge’s ability was from a quick taken penalty. Speedy centre Anna Wilson carried the ball deep into Oxford’s 22, and a series of phases resulted in another quick taken penalty. Although flanker Chloe Wither’s dash to the line was held up by a sturdy Oxford defence, Cambridge won themselves a scrum on the 10 metre line. This was driven forwards by Scrum Half Lydia Thorn, who sent the ball wide to full back Alice Middleton, who made use of a large overlap and crossed the line. She easily converted her own points, bringing the score to 7-0.

Lucy Cavendish student Middleton was soon off again, showcasing her skill and popping up all over the pitch — she really looks to be a bright star of this Cambridge squad. A break from Cambridge hooker Jessica Charlton led to Middleton again picking the ball up out wide, but it was turned over by Oxford and sent back upfield. But, 26 minutes in, both territory and possession were all light blue.

Errors ruined any Oxford attack, with the ball being knocked forwards on multiple occasions, whilst, Cambridge were the only side to string together phases and really use the width of the pitch. Thirty minutes in, and they proved how effective this tactic is, when winger Lara Gibson made a wonderful run down the right wing to touch down under the posts. Alice Middleton couldn’t add the conversion, leaving the score at 12-0 with ten to play in the first half.

With eight minutes to go, once again, Oxford tried to go forwards, which looked promising until Number 8 Jessie Van Der Grient was turned over at the breakdown. Moments later, winger Helen Potts made a lovely break down the right hand wing, but again was driven into touch by good defence from the Cambridge scrum half Lydia Thorn. The following line out, however, resulted in a penalty to Oxford which they took quickly, driving into the Cambridge 22 for the first time in the match. A good passage of play for the dark blues, but they were eventually driven back by a strong Cambridge defence, who won themselves a penalty on the 22 and cleared their lines.

A knock on ended the first half, and both teams retreated to the tunnel for the break, with Cambridge leading 12 – 0.

Early on in the second half, and after a brief period of possession from the dark blues, Cambridge extended their lead, with flanker Chloe Withers crossing the line for a five pointer. Alice Middleton added the extra two points to mean that after fourty eight minutes, Cambridge had established a healthy 19 – 0 lead.

Oxford didn’t drop their heads, however, and a strong period of possession saw them enter the Cambridge 22 once again, but this too ended in a penalty at the breakdown and allowed Cambridge centre Anna Wilson cleared their lines. Her wonderful kick rolled deep into the Oxford half, and Cambridge built on the following lineout to win a penalty in front of the posts. This was taken quickly, and although flaker Chloe Withers was held up to deny her the points, Alice Middleton soon crossed for her second of the match, which she then converted.

60 minutes in, and Cambridge started to empty the bench, bringing on number 17 Lucy Sutcliffe, 18 Charlotte Edgerley and 20 Bethany Randall. Oxford soon followed suit, replacing Bidgood, Robinson, and Willett in favour of 16 Jessica Kempner, 19 Sophie Taylor and 20 Caitlin McArdle, whilst Cambridge brought on number 22 Heather Britton. Fresh legs injected pace into the Cambridge line, and allowed the light blues to drive deep into the corner. Charlotte Edgerley’s effort to cross the line was held up, but centre Anna Wilson won Cambridge’s fifth try, and again Alice Middleton added the conversion.

Laura Bateman and Livvy Probert were brought on to further bolster the Cambridge effort, and a wonderful line break from number 12 Anna Wilson saw her run half the length of the pitch to cross by the posts once again, in a fantastic individual effort, which Alice Middleton easily converted. With ten minutes to play, Cambridge were leading by 40 points to nil, and had six tries on their books.

Simisola Oyesanya, Iona Harrap, Imogen Duffy and Maria Lamont were brought on to replace tiring dark  blue legs and empty the Oxford bench. But no one could stop Alice Middleton as she took Emily McNally’s skilled offload from halfway to cross in an impressive addition to a thoroughly spectacular all round performance. The conversion however, couldn’t be added, and Cambridge had to settle for a 45-0 lead with seven minutes to play.

This was not enough for Anna Wilson, who showcased her skill yet again to cross at the start of the 74th minute, and Middleton converted her effort. A final attacking attempt from Oxford showed individual moments of skill and promise, but the team just couldn’t come together on the day, and were no match for the strong Cambridge side. Alice Middleton was rightfully awarded Player of the Match for her impressive performance.

Deep into the last minute, Oxford were painfully close to the Cambridge line, and looked destined to go over, until a knock on ended their period of possession. Full back Alice Middleton was all too happy to touch the ball down as the bench flooded onto the pitch to celebrate Cambridge’s 52 – 0 win.

In an all round dominant performance, Cambridge were able to easily rattle Oxford and claim Varsity victory. After the match, we spoke to Education secretary Nicky Morgan MP, who is also minister for Women and Equalities, and an alumnus of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. After presenting the trophy to the victorious Cambridge team, she told Last Word that it was a “delight to be here”, despite her bias against the scoreline. As Minister for Women, she is determined that “girls can play rugby to a high level”, and is pleased by “the work being done by sports themselves to go into schools”. She is keen for young people to be involved in sport, and called today’s match at Twickenham “a sigificant step forwards” and a “seismic event”. She is also keen to encourage broadcasters to cover the women’s game more, saying “the more the media cover, the more we see equality”.

We also spoke to Player of the Match, Cambridge full back Alice Middleton. She was full of pride for the girls, especially the “massive Cambridge scrum”, saying “it’s so good as a back to watch the forwards working so hard for the ball, securing it for you, and then giving us the space to do what we like to do”. When asked about the significance of today’s match for women’s sport, she said: “it’s a massive occasion for all of us, for women’s sport, for rugby… let’s hope it spreads to all sport”. She called the experience of playing at Twickenham “mad”, and said she had “wanted to make the most of the occasion”, using the “momentum from the crowd” to drive her over the line three times in eighty minutes, and she “left everything on the pitch”. For her, the 52-0 result was a “dream”, and although unwilling to predict a score, she’s hoping for the boys to do the same later.

There’s definitely something building here at Twickenham, and as a female reporter it’s wonderful to see women’s rugby portrayed in such a positive light. The men’s equivalent match will kick off at 2.30, as Oxford hunt down a sixth win on the trot, with Welsh legend Jamie Roberts earning his first blue for CURUFC.
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