Cambridge were victorious in the 31st Women's Varsity MatchThe Varsity Match

An exceptional all-round performance from Cambridge helped them to an emphatic 24-0 triumph in the Varsity match at Twickenham. In doing so, they banished memories of last year’s agonising 3-0 defeat in the same fixture.

For most of the first half, this match looked like it would follow the same pattern as that low-scoring affair; persistent rain inducing a slew of handling errors and making it difficult to craft clear-cut opportunities. Cambridge looked the better of the two teams, controlling the scrum and showing more enterprise in the backs, but with five minutes to go they had nothing to show for it. Flanker and player of the match Chloe Withers insists that the Light Blues did not feel frustrated, though: “we were very confident, it’s just a matter of waiting for the right moment.”

That moment came following a rampaging run from outside centre Mary Coleman, in which she sent three Oxford defenders sprawling before being brought down five metres short of the try line. After prolonged battering at the Dark Blue defence from the forwards, hooker Jess Gurney showed great determination to power over the line. Fullback Alice Middleton bisected the uprights with her conversion, and Cambridge led 7-0.

With just one minute left, that looked like it would be the score at the interval. In fact, that minute would contain the match’s defining moment. Desperate to hit back, Oxford recovered the ball from the kick-off, and fly-half Johanna Dombrowski sent a testing cross-field kick through the swirling rain towards Middleton in the Cambridge 22. Scooping up the bobbling ball with Oxford wing Violet Smart hurtling towards her, the Light Blue fullback would have been expected to blast the ball into touch. Instead, she looked up, and seeing space to her left, jinked outside, sending Smart flying past her, and hurtled down the wing. Confronted by Sophie Trott on the halfway line, Middleton chipped the ball into the space the Oxford fullback had vacated, and it bounced perfectly into the arms of Light Blue captain Lara Gibson, who sped away from Dark Blue pursuers and slid under the posts. In perhaps ten clinical seconds, Cambridge had swept from defence to attack, sped the length of the pitch, and swung the momentum of the match emphatically in their favour.

The elation was clear as Cambridge avenged their 3-0 defeat in last year's matchThe Varsity Match

Asked about the try afterwards, Middleton beamed: “I know Lara so well. We’re at the same college, we joined the team at the same time. I heard her call for it, I looked into space and nipped it in there.” Once Gibson had the ball, the fullback says, she had no doubt she would score: “She is a speedster. It was an exciting moment chasing her, knowing I wasn’t needed as support, I was basically chasing her to celebrate.” Gibson, for her part, was a little surprised, “I was expecting to get a pass, so when Alice kicked it I thought, ‘we’ve lost it’, but then I saw that [the Oxford players] were just jogging back and didn’t seem to really want it, so I sped past them and thankfully got a really nice bounce”.

It was a blow from which Oxford never fully recovered. The second half began with torrential rain crashing down in freezing sheets, making it hard for either side to make significant progress. But as it eased, Cambridge pressed to extend their lead. Behind a dominant scrum and excellent tactical kicking, they enjoyed long spells in the Oxford 22, and their pressure was finally rewarded when scrum-half Kate Marks opportunistically darted over from the back of a scrum.

Not content with a three-score lead, the Light Blues pressed for more. A succession of swift, accurate passes swept the ball across the width of their opponents’ 22, giving number fourteen Bluebell Nicholls a glimpse of the tryline. But her arcing run was brought up just short by an excellent tackle from opposite number Violet Smart. With twelve minutes to go, Cambridge number eight Emily Pratt looked to have barged her way over the line with a break from the back of yet another dominant scrum, but referee Sarah Toll deemed the ball had been held up. And from the resulting scrum, the same happened again, this time scrum half Katie Marks being denied a second try. But the Light Blues kept hammering at the Oxford door, and from the next scrum they swept the ball left, allowing winger Bluebell Nicholls to nip into the corner and add gloss to the final score.

Once eighty minutes were up, scrum-half Kate Marks thumped the ball into touch and the Light Blues rushed into a bouncing, jubilant huddle. Player of the match Chloe Withers’ – a towering presence in the loose and at the breakdown throughout the game – encapsulated the Light Blues’ mood: “It’s amazing. We all had so much faith in each other… it just puts a smile on your face.”

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