By Brendan Gallagher
Cambridge will find themselves in the novel position – in recent years anyway – of being strong favourites when they defend the Rhino trophy at Twickenham on Thursday after last season’s 23-18 win broke the six year drought that had sorely tried the Light Blues.
The Light Blues have an unusually experienced squad for these modern times with a good smattering of older players with professional experience. In the back division they have pace to burn with Bristol’s Charlie Amesbury, a former England Sevens player, captaining the side from full-back while another former England Sevens star of a different vintage, Ollie Phillips, is good to go on the left wing after missing last year’s game though injury.
Phillips, once of Stade Francais and Gloucester, is 34 now and was the IRB World Sevens player of the year back in 2009. The legs might be beginning to slow a tad but, between the two of them, Amesbury and Phillips constitute an unusually potent threat out wide and much of Cambridge’s efforts are aimed to put them into space.
The Cambridge backs do have other weapons in their armoury though. In the centre Archie Russell shows much of the inventiveness of his Scotland international brother Finn and forms an all-Scottish combo in midfield with Jake Hennessey, while fly-half Mike Phillips is a Blue from last year and right wing Henry King also shared in that triumph over Oxford.
Up front Nick Koster, a former professional with Bristol, wins his first Blue and Buchan Richardson, a Scotland U20 representative, has caught the eye, but pride of place must go to prop Will Briggs who makes history by lining up for a record-breaking seventh Varsity match.
The 27-year-old Magdalene College medical student made his first appearance for the Light Blues in 2011 and made it six last year, joining fellow Cambridge man Herbert Fuller and Oxford’s Lewis Anderson who also played in a half dozen Varsity matches. Fuller played six times between 1879-1883, while Anderson’s six match unbeaten run was between 2009-2015. Briggs, the 2015 Cambridge skipper, was also an unused replacement in 2010. Only medical and vetinerary students can aspire to such longevity in the Oxbridge sporting arena.
Cambridge have shaped up quite nicely recently with wins over a Moseley XV, the British Police and Micky Steele-Bodger’s XV while there was a 29-12 loss to a strong Crawshay’s XV.
Amesbury says: “Progress for the Varsity Match has gone very well. We’ve had some injuries which have meant we’ve gone to some dark places, but I think it’s tested the depth of our squad.
“We’ve been putting in some good performances, which means excitement is building. There is a bit of tension ahead of the game, but it’s a positive tension. We’re building well and we’re fully focused on the mission – which is to try and win the Varsity Match for the second successive year.”
The Bodger’s match was the 70th anniversary of the fixture and Micky was there himself to preside over festivities. It was a notably open match with referee Wayne Barnes – warming up for the Wales v New Zealand game a few days later – somehow managing not to award a single penalty which either indicates that everybody was on their best behaviour or that he was determined to enter the spirit and adopt a Nelsonian approach.
The potent Cambridge backs scored eight tries and demonstrated that they have the potential to inflict a deal of damage at Twickenham, although as ever the clash with Oxford is usually decided up front.
Oxford, meanwhile, are of course looking to bounce back and have some experience of their own to call on. They have selected six Blues including their Irish fly-half and captain Conor Kearns, who also has Canada centre Dan Moor to call on and England Sevens star Sam Edgerley, below, at full-back.
Kearns has resisted the temptation to partner Moor with current Newcastle Falcons centre Dom Waldouck. A former Heineken Cup winner with Wasps and an England Saxon cap, Waldouck has been bedevilled with injury all season but has recovered sufficiently to at least make it on to the bench.
The Dark Blues have a bit of clout up front as well where another former England Saxon is in residence. Back in 2009 Saracens Andy Saull was seen as a possible future England openside having starred in all the age groups, but although he put in a stalwart seven-year shift with Sarries, winning a Premiership Championship with them in 2011, injuries took their toll while Saracens’ sheer strength in depth started to restrict his game time. He moved onto to Newcastle Falcons and for the last two years has been attached to Yorkshire Carnegie.
Rob Talotti, once of Viadana and Italy U21, has been a strong presence in the back row all season, as has the lively Will Wilson, while in the boiler house Lisiate Fifita, an Australian of Tongan extract, has been a notable recruit. For all the talk of talented backs and quick men from the Sevens circuit the 2017 Varsity match, like all its predecessors, while primarily be decided up front.