The match was CULNC's third consecutive league victoryHarry Normanton

CULNC 48

OUNC 43

BUCS Midlands 1A, University of Cambridge Sports Centre 

A ferocious defensive effort helped Cambridge to a comprehensive 48-43 victory over Oxford at the University Sports Centre on Wednesday evening.  This BUCS league victory, the Light Blues’ third in a row to start the season, had the feeling of a statement of intent ahead of the Varsity match in February. 

Cambridge led more or less from start to finish.  After the game, Light Blue captain and wing defender Chloe Merrell was quick to highlight her team’s defensive intensity as the source of their dominance: ‘I think that was what probably won us the match’.   Throughout the forty minutes the Light Blues showed a tenacity that their visitors could not match, swatting, deflecting and intercepting passes to prevent Oxford developing any rhythm in their ‘through court’ game – the phase when a team shifts from attack to defence. 

In the early stages, though, Cambridge were unable to make their superiority show.  A series of penalties and missed shots kept them off the scoreboard for the first three minutes, suggesting a degree of nervousness from a relatively inexperienced team featuring just four members of last year’s victorious Varsity squad.  Captain Merrell admitted that ‘playing Oxford is a big psychological test for us’, and felt that the ‘sticky’ start was a product of that.  But any nerves were quickly settled as confident shooting from goal attacker Frances Lee-Barber propelled Cambridge to a 9-4 lead. 

Netball is a game that can be broken down into distinct phases.  The through court game is a breakneck flurry of movement as the attacking team attempts to move the ball towards the shooting arc as quickly as possible, while scrambling defenders attempt to tip the ball away.  Attackers use a range of ploys to evade the attention of their opponents, from subtle bounce passes to fizzing one-handed ‘shoulder-passes’ that often travel up to twenty metres.  Often the ball is launched into empty spaces, anticipating the movement of team-mates, who leap to make fingertip catches.  They then have only three seconds to move the ball on.  The result is a wild geometric swirl of structured chaos. 

CULNC defeated Oxford 47-41 in last year's Varsity matchHarry Normanton

When the ball reaches either the goal attacker or goal shooter inside the shooting arc, though, and they decide to shoot, the tempo of the game changes.  For a moment, time is suspended.   The rest of the teams are stilled as the action crystallises into a contest between attacker and defender.  The latter is not allowed within three feet of the former, though, so in practise, it is a question of resolve on the part of the shooter.  While the defender leans over on tip toes, waves their arms and does everything they can to block or at least distract the attacker, they must retain their composure in propelling the ball into the ten foot high hoop.  And Cambridge’s attacking duo of Lee-Barber and Zoë Starbuck outshone their Oxford counterparts in this throughout the match. 

In spite of the Light Blues’ defensive intensity and attacking focus, though, Oxford were able to cling onto their coat-tails, rallying whenever their hosts threatened to run away with it.  They trimmed a nine point deficit with seven minutes to play to just four points, and although they were unable to snatch an unlikely victory, captain Elsa Wakeman felt there was cause for optimism in that strong finish.  After the game, she played down the notion that the game had any significant ramifications for the Varsity match in February, emphasising that ‘we have a reputation for losing in the league but pulling out the win at Varsity’.  That fixture, she suggested, brought with it extra motivation: ‘where we finish in the league matters to us, but everyone’s heart is really in the Varsity match’.  Cambridge captain Chloe Merrell was also wary of making too much of the win, acknowledging that ‘Varsity is its own occasion’.

There was, nevertheless, undisguised delight on Merrell’s part to have won this first encounter of the season.  In doing so, she thought, the new-look Blues had broken an important psychological barrier ahead of the game that will do most to define their season: ‘we know we can do it’. 

Teams:

Cambridge: S. Godlee, L. Gumbiti-Zimuto, R. Hurst, S. Maitland, C. Cunningham, C. Merrell (c), F. Lee-Barber, R. Haggie, Z. Starbuck

Oxford:  E.M. Wakeman, C. Lavender, I. Cooper, E. Ostridge, C. Ellis, L. Hindley, I. Picton-Turberville, H. Danbury, K. McCann, B. Annells

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