Extra kick in battle to be number one No 10

Varsity match
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The Independent Online

The 122nd Varsity Match has the potential to become a tale of two halves - the fly-halves, to be more precise. Hardly surprising, since the No 10 jersey has hardly been out of the public consciousness since England's World Cup final a fortnight ago.

Now though, instead of Jonny Wilkinson, the consummate professional, being at the centre of attention, the spotlight falls on a couple of amateurs - the opposing Varsity No 10s.

And the fact that both coaches, Oxford's Steve Hill and Cambridge's Tony Rodgers, have earmarked each other's playmaker as one to watch and be wary of is a measure of how highly Jon Fennell of Oxford and Cambridge's Dafydd Lewis are regarded in their sphere.

Hill says of Lewis: "Ah, the educated left foot. Dafydd is key to the way Cambridge are going to want to seek to play. He is a very accurate kicker out of hand, and therefore can get his side into key areas of the opponents' half. He is also an excellent place-kicker and can drop goals.

"He stands quite flat for a kicking fly-half, and while he is perhaps not that quick, he is a strong runner, and when an opportunity presents itself he is perfectly capable of taking on defences. We will be looking to close him down, put pressure on him."

Rodgers has also done his homework on Irishman Fennell. "He has a very good kick, runs the plays very well and gets his back line moving. He can also make breaks himself. He is the complete fly-half. We will certainly be keeping an eye on him."

As for the players themselves, while being aware that they will be the focus of their opponents' attention, they have differing views on how the wider interest sparked by Wilkinson's recent feats for England will affect them.

The Dublin-born Fennell, an all-round sportsman winning his first Blue, appears extremely relaxed. "I don't feel any added burden on my role because of the Wilkinson factor and the World Cup." Lewis has a slightly different take on it though. "I don't think there is a specific burden on fly-halves, but I do think what Wilkinson did adds to the pressure on kickers."

Neither player harbours passionate ambitions to join the professional ranks - they prefer to play the game for kicks. Indeed Lewis, the Light Blues fly-half, spent four years with Wasps, where he was perpetually in the shadow of England's Alex King and then more recently Mark van Gisbergen.

The fact that he is no longer at the club tells its own story, but he brings professional attitudes and practices to his preparation, spending at least an hour before squad training to work on his kicking. "I do that at least four times a week, fitting it in around my studies," he explains. Fennell turned up at a Dark Blues training session 18 months ago having missed the trials, and unable to take part in the session because he could not see out of a blackened right eye, the legacy of a recent game.

He has played in France, for Lyon, as well as for St Mary's College in Dublin, but, while he harbours no professional ambitions, he is as dedicated a trainer as anyone.

Hill admires Fennell's work ethic: "He is one of the most disciplined members of the squad and in fact we are having to tell him to stop practising his kicking." The man himself, who also excels at cricket, Gaelic football and badminton, says: "This is the most professional rugby experience of my life. Although I arrived here for purely academic reasons, I was determined to play for Oxford."

By the final whistle on Tuesday he will have done so, and by then the Varsity Match may well have become a tale of one half. It is just a question of which one.