It’s an odd thing to play XVs at the end of July, just when the memory of the last season should be distant and one only just begins contemplating making a start on that long-promised upper body session in the local gym or some half-hearted sprints along the beach. It’s even odder to wake up on a Saturday morning thinking “Today’s the day – Varsity” without any of the familiar intensive build-up markers of final trainings, squad announcement, team photo, good luck messages, stash collection. But here we were – two full squads pretending not to shudder in the driving rain of West London; too many for one position, not enough for another (typically Cambridge had plenty of spare front row – did they want to borrow any of our 5 scrum halves…not that we would…?) Most of us have kept playing in some form – Tag, Touch, full contact – and old partnerships were scattered across the line up, but even a two week break can make one feel out of sync. Could we make it work when it mattered? And make no mistake – it mattered.
All too quick: forwards right, whistle, hold breath, kick, silence, gather, support, hit. Shouts of support. Scramble. Ball gone. Recycle. Breathe. Familiarity. It’s not odd. It’s just another game of rugby. Familiar Dark Blue socks rushing up to meet pale striped ones. Seven former Oxford captains and vice-captains on pitch – leaders and voices were plentiful. No doubt that the conditions made it tough work for everyone. Whilst Oxford struggled to adjust to a very new combination in the scrum, Cambridge were tight and assured, although somewhat unprepared for Jessie-Joy Olivier hassling at scrum-half. The ball remained in the Oxford half for much of the first period but Oxford were the first to strike, using Emily Stone’s pace to break the line and then quick hands through the backs wide put Tess Braunerova over the line. Cambridge, unfazed, came back again with some organised pod work whilst the Oxford defence demonstrated some fearless one-on-one confrontations with huge hits from Rona Mitchell and Ann Cooper. Eventually, some patient phase work took Cambridge from one side of the Oxford 22 to the other and a neat pick and go by Sian McGuinness saw her dive just right of the posts to level the scores. The conversion set the score at 5-7 at half time.
With the rain still coming down, but lighter, Oxford sought to capitalise on the strength in their back line. Play remained in the centre of the pitch with equal possession but fresh legs enabled the pace to step up. Oxford knew that the key would be the ability to switch mentality from defence into attack in an instant and the next score was proof. Straight after a period of defence, strong running from lock Leanne Robinson fixed the Cambridge centres. A beautifully timed pass to Carly Bliss, who still had some sidestepping and gas to add, put Oxford back ahead. A gift from one captain to another – the conversion was in range, and the sturdy boot of fly-half Catherine Wilcock made sure: 12-7 to Oxford. The final quarter saw the Oxford scrum struggle again and Cambridge turned over the ball repeatedly. However, the open play remained even with Oxford recovering the ball on the right, setting up phases across to the spectators on the left. Cambridge were lacking numbers, gifting Hannah Grainger-Clemson a clear pick and go and a pass to Tess Braunerova who finished in fine style, beating three opposition backs with her turn of pace. 17-7. No doubt in the closing stage every player heard again the words of their coaches and captains past. What was the Varsity game plan with minutes to go? Empty the tank? Bodies on the line. Hardly a plan, more a basic instinct and desperate need. Cambridge camped again in the Oxford 22 including numerous pick and go’s a metre from the line. “Don’t give away a penalty; not now.” Shouts (more laboured now). Come left! Up! I have! Back foot! It’s ours. Kick. Their ball. Keep the line. Pass. Knock on. Hold breath. Whistle. Long whistle. Breathe. Relief. Smiles. Hugging friend. Congratulating foe? But we’re Old Girls now. It’s different. All in this together – the big women’s rugby family. And yet…
We would like to thank everyone who made this very first Old Girls’ Varsity possible: the referee Phil Creswell, the physio Steve Garvey, Wimbledon RFC, the organisers Mairi Robertson, Rachel Drapper, Meg Gardiner, Jess Tayenjam and Katie Holmes, photographer Andrew Bunting and everyone who came to support.