Rugby Union: Varsity match underlines dearth of English talent

Oxford University 17 Cambridge University 29
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The Independent Online
It is almost too easy to bombard the Varsity match with wisecracks, to dismiss English rugby's last great amateur occasion as one huge, spiffing irrelevance and to suggest that the entertainment laid before successive sell-out crowds at Twickenham managed to nosedive from the sublime to the substandard in the space of 72 hours. But in one very important respect, yesterday's huffing and puffing over the destination of the Bowring Bowl amounted to a mirror image of a professional club game much maligned by Fran Cotton and his acolytes.

Give or take the odd expat student able to point to English parents in some far-flung corner of the world, only 50 per cent of the Blue-clad combatants could claim to be of the slightest interest to Clive Woodward and the rest of the national selectors. Indeed, the sheer volume of Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders - not to mention Oxford's Irish contingent and the odd American prop - ensured that yesterday's match had at least something in common with the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Those Cottonites determined to construct some sort of sea wall against the tidal wave of foreign imports will feel even more sure of their ground in the light of yesterday's events. Of the players who possessed sufficient quality to rise above the breathless over-enthusiasm of an error-ridden contest - Paul Surridge, Tom Murphy and Andrew Craig for Cambridge, Niall Hogan, David Kelaher and Kevin Spicer for Oxford - how many were English? None. That's how many.

Surridge, whose 14-point haul included a game-clinching try on 61 minutes, showed enough all-round ability at full-back to suggest he might one day join his elder brother Steve in an All Black tour party. But it was Craig, a granite-fisted hard-nut from Waikato country, who shone like a beacon in a plainly superior Cambridge outfit. His prematurely bald pate gave him the stamp of a leaner, fitter Craig Quinnell and while his naked aggression earned him separate warnings from the referee, Brian Campsall, it also reduced the Oxford tight five to rubble. To think he is planning a career in the diplomatic service.

In fairness to the best of the English contingent, Richard Bramley was seldom more than a metre or two from his second row partner's shoulder. Indeed, last year's Cambridge captain claimed the opening try after just six minutes, wrestling his way over from a close-range line-out after Nick Walne had put Oxford's South African wing, Ryan Pollock, in queer street on his own 22.

When Walne himself struck 12 minutes later and Surridge sank his second conversion, it was clear that Oxford could not hope to win the game unless Cambridge presented it to them in a gift-wrapped box. Kelaher, a strikingly intelligent open-side flanker from Australia, did not help a dying cause by hooking three first-half penalty shots - his kicking was the one weak aspect of his game - and as a result, Oxford turned to face the elements 14-3 adrift.

Mark Denney's sharp, sidestepping try nine minutes into the second half increased the gap and although Spicer reaped the benefit of Campsall's intriguing interpretation of the scrummage laws to claim a good, old-fashioned and thoroughly illegal "wheel" try, Surridge effectively wrapped it up by hitting the rear of another Cambridge driving maul and emerging on the other side with five priceless points in his back pocket.

On a bitterly cold afternoon, it was particularly brave of one Cambridge supporter to shed her clothes in true Erica Roe style and sprint the length of the field.

As one wag put it: "She may be a Light Blue, but she'll be dark blue by the time she's finished." A wonderful thing, tradition.

Oxford: Tries Spicer, Booth; Conversions Kelaher 2; Penalty: Kelaher. Cambridge: Tries Bramley, Walne, Denney, Spicer; Conversions Surridge 3; Penalty Surridge.

OXFORD UNIVERSITY: R Maher (University, capt); N Booth (Worcester), N Larsen (Lincoln), B Rudge (Liverpool and Keble), R Pollock (Keble); T Jensen (St Anne's), N Hogan (Merton); R Lehner (St Anne's), M Collard (St Anne's), A Reuben (University), T Eisenhauer (St Anne's), A Roberts (New), M Orsler (Christ Church), K Spicer (St Anne's), D Kellaher (St Cross). Replacements: G Lewis (St Anne's) for Pollock, 31; S van Reenan (St Anne's) for Roberts, h-t; J Sharples (St Edmund Hall) for Lehner, 78; C Lavin (St Edmund Hall) for Kelaher, 82.

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: P Surridge (Hughes Hall); N Walne (St Catharine's), M Robinson (Hughes Hall), M Denney (St Edmund's), N Hill (St Edmund's); R Ashforth (Peterhouse), R Elliott (St Edmund's); G Reynolds (Hughes Hall), T Murphy (St Edmund's, capt), M Foulds (Sidney Sussex), R Bramley (St Edmund's), A Craig (Hughes Hall), M Hyde (St Edmund's), J Cocks (St Edmund's), H Whitford (Homerton). Replacements: A Goldsmith (Homerton) for Surridge, 81; G Williams (Homerton) for Hill, 84.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).