Rodgers talks down his finest moment

RUGBY UNION: Students take long-term view and mute their celebrations while Mr Professional takes to the field again
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There is a ritual to be observed by the protagonists when moving towards the University match, which - for Cambridge - was not served by their 22-14 defeat of Western Samoa. Grange Road has seen 99 years of rugby and, awkwardly, this was one of the jewels in that near-centenary.

So Tony Rodgers, the duffel-coated coach who seems to have been around for every year of the 99, effusively greeted a notable and noble victory and then realised his mistake. Oxford having been trounced 45-17 by the Samoans four days earlier, did this not inevitably install his Light Blues as favourites for Twickenham on 12 December?

Well of course not, Rodgers insisted, since nothing that occurs before the University match counts for anything. He should know: Gerald Davies's star-spangled 1970 side won every pre-Twickenham match but still contrived to lose the one that mattered most. Rodgers was in the Cambridge second row, as he had been a few weeks earlier when they had beaten Fiji.

Deja vu, as the university's French department might say. "We have to keep our feet very firmly on the ground; that's going to be the difficult thing," he pronounced. "Oxford will see that and it will be a red rag to a bull. It's a different game, a one-off, and this goes out the window." Rodgers - rather like his Oxford counterpart Lynn Evans, really - is in the habit of saying such things on an annual basis, since the last thing either university wishes is the burden of favouritism.

Even so, on the direct comparison of Iffley Road against Grange Road he is talking through the Bill-and-Ben hat he sometimes wears. The Dark Blues had a more productive line-out but in every other area the contrast was as vivid as that between the team's shades of blue (even if Oxford were in unwonted blue-and-white hoops).

More important to Cambridge was their voracity for the loose ball, in which respect an exceptional back row utterly outplayed the Samoans. That Russell Earnshaw suffered nothing in comparison with the Antipodean pairing of Marty Hyde and Steve Surridge was a tribute to all three, who augmented their attacking ball-winning with a ferocious defensive display.

This intransigence spread through the side and, one might say for the benefit of the affable Rodgers, is precisely what tends to win University matches when you are (or think you are) playing for your life in front of 70,000, which is the Rugby Football Union's projection for the attendance three weeks hence.

On Saturday Cambridge won by keeping their noses in front while Rob Ashforth and Campbell Burnes were engaged in a kicking duel and then coming on strongly when the exchanges suddenly opened up in the final quarter. It was only after Steve Cottrell, the outstanding New Zealander who missed his blue because of injury last year, and Nick Walne had scored their tries that the islanders cast off their torpor for their try by Happy- Valley Patu.

Yes, the felicitous full-back is blessed with this forename and for most of the time Happy Valley was where most of the Samoans appeared mentally to be dwelling. "The importance of the mind in rugby is very well illustrated; we probably thought it was going to be much the same as against Oxford," Bryan Williams, their exasperated coach, said. "This seems to be a trait we've got. They are so laid-back, some of them, that they struggle to produce any sort of consistency."

If anything, this was a stronger Samoan team than the one who had lost to Oxford, containing as it did eight of those who had drawn with Scotland a week earlier as opposed to the five who had faced the Dark Blues. On the other hand, Rodgers's dismissal of the result in Twickenham terms gains some support from Samoan selection: only three of the Iffley Road winners also turned out at Grange Road.

In fact they had deliberately kept the choice below strength, bearing in mind that the next four fixtures will take them round the English divisions, and their tour in Scotland sharply exposed the differing calibre of their first- and second-choice players. The post-World Cup depredations of rugby league have exacerbated the Samoans' lack of depth.

But let us give them credit for resisting fearsome odds. Having been gratuitously abandoned by the big rugby unions of the southern hemisphere, they - or more specifically Williams, one of the all-time great All Black wings - have attracted a backer, the Auckland merchant-banker Michael Fay of yachting fame, to help finance the new professionalism. And planning for a Pan-Pacific tournament involving the Pacific islands, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Japan and Hong Kong is at an advanced stage.

There are new imperatives for which the Samoans, not blessed either administratively or economically, are ill suited. As it happens, there is a vaguely similar struggle going on at Cambridge and Oxford, who find themselves to be the last redoubts of amateurism and effectively squeezed out of meaningful club fixtures by league rugby.

Hence the inauguration in January of a European universities' tournament including Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin, Paris and Rome ("Oxford declined the invitation," Rodgers said sniffily) with plans to double and even treble its size in succeeding years.

The Blues have in effect been abandoned by the clubs (Harlequins, for example, gave Cambridge 24 hours' notice of their withdrawal from this month's game), just as Western Samoa have been abandoned by South Africa, Australia and above all New Zealand. Nice of England to have them at Twickenham, four days after Oxbridge.

Cambridge University: Tries Cottrell, Walne; Penalties Ashforth 3; Drop goal Ashforth. Western Samoa: Try Patu; Penalties Burnes 2, Patu.

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: A Spencer (St John's); S Sexton (Hughes Hall), T Whitford (Homerton), S Cottrell (St Edmund's, capt), N Walne (St Catharine's); R Ashforth (Peterhouse), B Ryan (Homerton); L Mooney (Hughes Hall), J Evans (Homerton), N Holgate (Robinson), R Bramley (St Edmund's), C Simpson (Homerton), M Hyde (St Edmund's), S Surridge (Wolfson), R Earnshaw (St John's). Replacement: J Rutter (St John's) for Walne, 71. Temporary substitute: D Brandt (Downing) for Mooney, 36-39.

WESTERN SAMOA: H-V Patu (Vaiala); B Lima (Marist), T Vaega (Te Atatu), K Tuigamala (Scopa), A Telea (Petone); C Burnes (University), M Vaea (Marist); B Reidy (Marist St Patrick's), O Matautia (Moata'a), P Fatialofa (Manukau), S Lemamea (Scopa), L Falaniko (Marist), L Ta'ala (Police), P Lam (capt), S Vaifale (Marist).

Referee: G Crothers (Belfast).

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