The death of Ian Tucker, the young Australian centre who succumbed to head injuries suffered in Oxford's warm-up match with Saracens in October, left the South African skipper in charge of a team that no longer wanted any part of rugby. Indeed, De Bruyn himself went through a prolonged period of self-questioning. For all his experience of the harsh and unsentimental realities of the game in Bloemfontein and Cape Town, Tucker's tragedy devastated him.
Six weeks on, De Bruyn has at least succeeded in restoring the competitive edge to a side that bore the stamp of underdogs even before the Saracens incident knocked the stuffing from them. "It hasn't been easy for any of us - some of the players understandably felt that they never wanted to touch a rugby ball again," the captain said. "I think now, however, that we are in a position to do our best by Ian and take the game to Cambridge with everything we have."
That is no mean achievement. De Bruyn's motivational difficulties were compounded by the knee injury he picked up at Bath - he missed a month and several important fixtures - and he could not even turn to those of his countrymen touring with the Junior Springboks for a timely boost in morale. The Boks played both universities and, after giving Oxford a fearful 49-12 hiding, several of them predicted a comfortable victory for Cambridge.
That opinion is borne out by almost every litmus test you care to apply to this afternoon's match. To begin with, the Light Blues are by some distance the more seasoned outfit - they field six of last year's triumphant starting line-up plus Ben Ryan, the scrum-half who played as a replacement for almost an hour of that game, and Nick Walne, a Wales Under-21 wing who won a Blue two seasons ago and would have taken part in 1995 but for an ankle injury. By comparison, Oxford go in with only three Blues, including De Bruyn.
Cambridge also look better equipped in the ball-winning areas. They possess a class second row pairing in Richard Bramley, the captain from Yorkshire who has led both England Students and England Under-21s, and Andrew Craig, a seriously useful New Zealander whose grounding with Waikato (don't mention the name Waikato to the British Lions) has established him as a kingpin forward.
With Martin Hyde, a 6ft 4in blindside flanker from Sydney, giving them a further line-out option and Nick Holgate, a mobile tighthead prop, back in harness after recovering from a broken jaw - in traditional front-row fashion he went to the aid of a cyclist who lay injured in Cambridge city centre and was badly beaten up for his trouble - Bramley's pack looks to be the dominant unit.
For his part, De Bruyn has gambled by omitting Karl Svoboda, the Canadian international hooker, along with the Frenchman Jerome Riondet, who played at centre last year. Nick Hockley and Trevor Walsh, a graduate freshman from Queensland, get the nod.
Where Oxford just may have an edge is at half-back, where the former Irish national captain Niall Hogan partners James Averis, the big-kicking outside-half from Bristol. If Averis, a cricketer of county standard, makes anything like the impact of his immediate predecessor, Oxford will be in the pound seats; David Humphreys played so brilliantly for the Dark Blues in last season's exciting encounter that he collected a record 19 points and, but for a late and controversial penalty try, would surely have won the day single-handed.
Bramley, who wins his fourth successive Blue today, is understandably reluctant to attach the remotest importance to the form book, even though his side's victory over Queensland last month gave them all the confidence in the world. "The Varsity match is like no other occasion in the sport - it's a one-off, a totally unpredictable fixture. People pull out one or two results from the warm-up programme and try to make a judgement on that basis, but this is a different day and a different atmosphere. No one can tell what will happen."
If Bramley tastes Bowring Bowl victory this afternoon for the third time in as many years, it will come as no surprise. But if De Bruyn lifts the trophy - and there have been greater shocks in this famous old student showpiece - the tearful toasts will be to one man: Ian Tucker.
OXFORD UNIVERSITY: R Maher (St Ignatius Coll, Sydney and University); C Smart (Sherbourne and Trinity), Q de Bruyn (Diocesan Coll, Cape Town and Keble, capt), T Walsh (St Joseph's Coll, Brisbane and Keble), R Browne (St Michael's College, Dublin and Univ); J Averis (Bristol Cathedral Sch and St Cross), N Hogan (Terenure Coll, Dublin and Merton); J Bothwell (Marlborough and Merton), N Hockley (King Edward Sch, Birmingham and Worcester), D Penney (Mt Pearl Sen High Sch, Newfoundland and Wolfson), T Eisenhauer (St Ignatius Coll, Sydney and St Anne's), K Spicer (Clongowes Wood Coll, Dublin and St Anne's), M Orsler (King's Canterbury and Christ Church), C McCarthy (St Mary's Coll, Dublin and Templeton), J Kindon (Millfield and Queen's).
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: P Surridge (St Kentigern Coll, NZ and Hughes Hall); M Walne (Caerleon Comp and St Catherine's), M Singer (Wycliffe Coll and Homerton), N Hill (St Ignatius, Sydney and St Edmund's), R Phillips (Ys gol Gyfun Llanhari and Homerton); R Ashforth (Bradford GS and Peterhouse), B Ryan (Wimbledon Coll and Homerton); G Reynolds (Cheshunt Sch and Homerton), T Murphy (St Joseph's Coll, Nudgee, Australia and St Edmund's), N Holgate (Armthorpe Comp, Doncaster and Robinson) R Bramley (Q Elizabeth GS Wakefield and St Edmund's capt), A Craig (Taurarigo Boys Coll, NZ and Hughes Hall), M Hyde (St Ignatius Coll, Sydney and St Edmund's), J Griffiths (Crossley Heath, Halifax and St Edmund's), R Earnshaw (Yarm Sch and St John's).