Rugby Union: Beer is the toast of Dark Blues

Oxford back's accuracy proves decisive to see off Cambridge in 118th Varsity Match; By Chris Hewett at Twickenham Oxford University 16 Cambridge University 13
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NEVER MIND the quality, feel the force of habit. The 118th Varsity Match lured the best part of 50,000 spectators to Twickenham yesterday afternoon and, while the attendance was down on recent years, approximately 45,000 more people watched the latest mish-mash of undergraduates, eternal students and southern hemisphere imports tear around the old cabbage patch at break-neck speed than are likely to watch any of this weekend's Heineken Cup matches. Odd? You could say. Presumably, these people also prefer Pam Ayres to Wordsworth.

Still, it is difficult to argue with the market; the oval-ball affairs of Oxford and Cambridge undoubtedly continue to fascinate a significant proportion of the English rugby public. "I'm surprised that the fixture is criticised as much as it is," said Norman Celliers, the No 8 from Springbok country who led the Dark Blues to their first victory since 1993 and, in the process, prevented his opponents setting a new record of six victories on the bounce. "It's unique; it's about Britain and history and tradition." Er, yes. But so is swallowing plovers' eggs, drinking pink champagne and being sick in one's rooms in true Bridesheadian style. Is that still relevant on the cusp of the new millennium? Answers on a postcard, please...

As it happened, yesterday's match was a real confrontation complete with vim, vigour and vitriol. Ray Lehner, the Oxford loose head who played two recent World Cup matches for his native United States, ensured that this would be a game for grown-ups by laying into Michael Count, the Cambridge No 8, at the first available opportunity. There was some fierce rucking, too. Clayton Thomas, the Welsh referee who made such a monumental pig's ear of the Leicester-Stade Francais match just over a fortnight ago, was on the ball this time; realising that the testosterone was in full flood, he let the boys get on with it and in doing so presided over an intriguing, often compelling, contest.

Had it been a dry day, Cambridge would have won by a country house drive. They were clearly the quicker, more imaginative outfit from nine to 15 and, in Robin Morrow and Kensuke Iwabuchi, they possessed the two game- breaking backs on view. And, sure enough, the pair of them came within a whisker of breaking this game wide open. Morrow, a left wing whose prowess in the tackle caused him to spend half the game at stand-off, opened the scoring in sweet fashion after just five minutes, taking possession of an inspired pass from Adam Bidwell and finishing at the flag while Lehner was busily piling into the unfortunate Count. Seventeen minutes later he helped Iwabuchi claim the second try with a judicious toe-poke towards the right corner.

Sadly for the favourites, their New Zealand Under-21 full-back Gary Paulin was just a little awry with his goal-kicking. In fact, he left the impression that he could not have hit an unpopular lecturer with a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Paulin missed both conversions plus a penalty from in front of the sticks and, as a result, Cambridge reached half-time only 10 points up rather than 17-3 to the good.

"Cambridge had played well to disrupt our game plan in the first half, but the game plan still held good," said Celliers, a 26-year-old civil engineering graduate from Western Province studying for a Masters in business administration. "I was always confident that we could dominate our opponents up front, so the half-time team talk was all about us switching on and actually doing the things we had spent the whole build-up talking about." And lo and behold, his colleagues paid attention. From the restart, they took hold of the Light Blue pack by the short and curlies and kept twisting until the job was done.

Toby Beer, a Varsity Match virgin, banged over penalties on 45 and 57 minutes to repay his front five for their utter domination of the scrummage; when Lehner gave way to the balding Hayden Jeffreys on 50 minutes, Cambridge's set-piece plight grew worse rather than better. Yet Beer appeared to have cost his forwards their just reward on 68 minutes when he hit an upright with the easiest of penalties from inside the Light Blue 22. Even though the ball rebounded into Oxford arms, the Cambridge defence held firm, as it had done for the previous half hour.

Then something happened that was very much out of the Dark Blue - a break- out with ball in hand. Celliers was heavily involved, as were his scrum- half, Ewan Weston, and inside centre John Kinniburgh, and the upshot was a line-out just short of of the Cambridge line. There was little possibility of the Light Blues escaping on this occasion and, while they resisted one churning drive, they could not prevent Luke Sherriff, the Oxford blind- side flanker, claiming a decisive try from the second.

"It's hard to take, but I guess winning wouldn't be so much fun if losing wasn't so painful," said Angus Innes, the Cambridge captain, afterwards. Innes is studying social and political science. Maybe he should switch to philosophy.

Oxford University: Try Sherriff; Conversion Beer; Penalties Beer 3. Cambridge University: Tries Morrow, Iwabuchi; Penalty: Paulin.

Oxford University: P Graham (Worcester); T Beer (Regent's Park), K Shuman (Templeton), J Kinniburgh (Oriel), S Danielli (Trinity); S FitzGerald (Balliol), E Weston (Keble); R Lehner (Kellogg), P Nicholas (Brasenose), A Collins (Lincoln), A Russell (Magdalen), S Miall (St Anne's), L Sherriff (St Anne's), D Kelaher (St Cross), N Celliers (Keble, capt). Replacements: H Jeffreys (Linacre) for Lehner 50; M Parker (Christ Church) for Nicholas 77.

Cambridge University: G Paulin (Hughes Hall); G Williams (St Edmund's), A Bidwell (Hughes Hall), B Rudge (Queens'), R Morrow (Hughes Hall); K Iwabuchi (St Edmund's), G Peacocke (Hughes Hall); J Cooke (St Edmund's), J Hamilton-Smith (Homerton), N Hennessy (Homerton), H Innes (Hughes Hall), A Innes (Hughes Hall, capt), A Grabham (Homerton), M Haslett (St Catherine's), M Count (Jesus). Replacements: O Jones (St Edmund's) for Williams 69; N Buoy (Hughes Hall) for Paulin 78.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).