A home crowd inspired Cambridge to secure the Varsity crown by 47–41Imran Marashli

University of Cambridge 47

University of Oxford 41

Blues Varsity Match, University of Cambridge Sports Centre

A most sensational of seasons for Cambridge University Ladies’ Netball Club got even better on Saturday afternoon, as the Light Blues ran away 47–41 winners against Oxford University Netball Club to clinch the Varsity crown and cap off a wonderful season’s display of netball.

If any one word could sum up the game at the outset for the Light Blues, it was redemption. An agonising 37–34 loss last year, coupled with defeats to the Swallows and the Jays earlier in the day, meant that all remaining Cantabrigian hopes rested on the Light Blues’ shoulders as they took to the court in front of an almost full house at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre.

Both sides fed off the ebullient atmosphere, and the intensity of the play in the first quarter reflected the stakes. Cambridge opened the scoring through Frances Lee-Barber but were continually pegged back by an Oxford side who went toe to toe with them throughout the first half. Both teams were cohesive and effective in utilising rapid wide passes to eke out opportunities in the goal circle, with Maddy Eno and Lee-Barber for the Light Blues and Elsa Wakeman for the Dark Blues starting to chalk up healthy goal tallies. Despite the evenness of a frantic first 15 minutes, the first quarter ended with Cambridge leading 12–11 thanks to some unerring goal-shooting from Eno.

The pattern established in the first quarter continued into the second. But the Light Blues created some more breathing space for themselves owing to more immaculate goal-shooting from Eno, who prevailed more often than not in her individual battle with Oxford Goal Keeper Laura Venables, with Lee-Barber ably assisting her at Goal Attack. The simply relentless shooting from this deadly duo only put more pressure on Wakeman at Goal Shooter and Hebe Wescott at Goal Attack, whose slightly inferior conversion rate was enough to hand Cambridge a 25–22 lead at half-time.

But it was in the third quarter when the floodgates opened and the match swung decisively in Cambridge’s favour. Almost flawless netball, offensively and defensively, left Oxford with an unrecoverable deficit in what was a barnstorming 15 minutes for the Light Blues. Sophie Maitland at Centre and Becky Haggie at Wing Attack led the way in keeping the goal-shooting machine of Eno and Lee-Barber well oiled, and this devastatingly efficient offensive play was consolidated by commanding performances by Lucy Gumbiti-Zimuto at Goal Keeper and the veteran Charlotte Plumtree at Goal Defence. Their frequent interceptions, particularly through Gumbiti-Zimuto’s use of her tall figure, saw numerous Oxford attacks peter out via the sideline and goal line.

This contrasted starkly with the slick play from the Light Blues, who were outstanding in their ferociously incisive passing, which allowed them to penetrate into the Oxford goal circle time after time. And when there, the classy Lee-Barber and Eno continued to turn on the style against Venables and Harriet Dixon at Goal Defence: it was raining goals, and Oxford just could not weather the storm. After a simply scintillating 15 minutes of netball, the scoreboard read 38–28 to Cambridge, undoing all of Oxford’s first-half energy and enterprise.

Oxford were unable to launch a comeback after a stellar third quarter from the home sideImran Marashli

It proved to be an unassailable lead. Ten goals to the good, Cambridge would not let their ascendancy slip, although Oxford, to their credit, upped the ante in the final quarter to partially claw back the deficit, backed by their boisterous contingent in the crowd. The re-entrance of Isa Cooper at Centre, with some more confident shooting from Wakeman and Westcott, narrowed the gap created by the blistering third quarter from Cambridge. But that gap simply could not be eliminated, and, despite some jittery moments caused by Oxford’s rallying, the Light Blues held out to seal a sweet victory.

Speaking to Varsity, a disappointed Oxford captain, Catherine Lavender, could nevertheless hold her head high: “We lost our composure in the third quarter, but we’re really proud of our performance, considering Cambridge have been in the division above us all season, playing harder teams, so for us to stay in it the way we did was really good for us. I think they were expecting to come out and annihilate us, but we really took it to them, and we still won Varsity overall.

“We haven’t had the same sense of competition all year – we’ve been winning, but we haven’t had to play well – whereas they’re used to having tough games. I think that’s what we missed – it was that bit of really clinching it when it matters.”

Light Blues captain Hayley Smith was elated in her post-match thoughts: “We’re so happy. I think playing in a league above Oxford for the whole season just really showed the difference in our standard compared to theirs. It was such a good win, especially after the Swallows and the Jays losing.”

Looking back on the pivotal third quarter, the Johnian said: “Oxford made a few changes and took off their Centre. They really fell behind us, and we were able to capitalise on that,” she explained. “They threw away a lot of balls; we were able to make some interceptions and turn it over, so it meant that we had an easy lead for the rest of the match.”

With nine wins out of nine in the Midlands 1A League, Cambridge can now reflect on what has been a magnificent season. “I’m absolutely chuffed,” Smith said of the campaign as a whole. “I’m very excited to see what the play-offs will bring, because we’ve now got another couple of matches to see whether we’re going to be promoted to the Premier League, but this has definitely been the highlight of the season.”

CULNC: Smith (c), Phillips, Carpenter, Eno, Gumbiti-Zimuto, Haggie, Lee-Barber, Maitland, Plumtree

OUNC: Lavender (c), Wescott, Venables, Ostridge, Hindley, Cooper, Anderson, Danbury, Dixon, Wakeman

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