Jess Abele will have a hat-trick of objectives in mind when she leads out Oxford in the women’s Varsity Match on its Twickenham return on Saturday (kick-off 12.30pm).
Firstly, the Exeter College PhD student will be hoping to end her rugby career on a high by beating her old alma mater. She won her first Blue in Cambridge colours in 2018.
Secondly, she will be hoping to stop the Light Blues creating a record with their fifth win in a row. And finally, she will be looking to make a bit of history by becoming the first player to play on a winning side for both teams.
At 29, the German-born lock admits the knocks she has taken, along with the injuries she has suffered, have made her decide to hang up her boots despite having one more year at Oxford, where she is researching prostate cancer.
Two months ago she initiated a change in the coaching regime at the club after a difficult first term this season. Out went Phil Llewellyn and in came James Clark.
In football parlance, the Dark Blues benefitted from a ‘bounce’ with new leadership and a 12-10 home win over Cambridge in their second meeting of the season in the BUCS Premier (South) league has instilled new belief into both captain and coach ahead of the Twickenham decider.
“There is real impetus in the process now after we beat Cambridge at Iffley Road. That was the catalyst we needed for the girls to really believe in themselves,” said Clark.
“There is confidence in the group, as well as excitement. In any two-horse race you’ve got a chance. The key is to make the most of the opportunity.”
There is similar excitement and anticipation in the Cambridge ranks, with their skipper, loose head prop Lauran Bleehen, looking to end her university career with a record breaking fifth win in a row.
Her side had to wait for their seventh game of the season before tasting victory – a 15-0 home win over Oxford! They won four more games after that and Bleehen believes the battling victory at Loughborough in the BUCS Vase quarter-final was a turning point in the Light Blues season.
“We went toe-to-toe with them for 100 minutes and were strong enough to come out on top 24-19. And we did it at their place as well,” said Bleehen.
“I was so proud of that performance and I’m hoping it will stick in the memories of all the Cambridge players. I think we’ve got as strong a pack as ever and our back division has shown it can be pretty lethal given the chance.
“We get two great centres in Laura Vass and Tabby Brough and the plan is to give them enough ball to set Twickenham alight.”
TEAMS FOR THE 35TH WOMEN’S VARSITY MATCH
Oxford: Clodagh Holmes * (University); Chloe-Marie Hawley (St Catherine’s), Alex Travers * (Worcester), Caitlin Gill (Queen’s), Kehinde Lawal (St Catherine’s); Milo Cohen * (Jesus), Estefania Ramirez Castillo # (Green Templeton); Juliette Shorey (St Hilda’s), Rachel Martin (Brasenose), Maya Mellor * (Somerville), Imogen Kilcoyne (St John’s), Josie Osborne (Regent’s Park), Jessica Abele * (Exeter, Captain), Lauren Webb (Corpus Christi), Megan Isaac * (Exeter)
Replacements: Alice Ardis (St Catherine’s), Zoe Harper (St Anne’s), Amber Wilkins (Lady Margaret Hall), Lottie Fry (Wadham), Emily Blake (St Hugh’s), Tabitha Preston (Worcester), Isabella Zani (Keble), Lily-Mae Phillips (New)
Cambridge: Emily Bell *(Fitzwilliam); Colette Russell (Fitzwilliam), Laura Vass (Fitzwilliam), Tabbie Brough * (Queens’), Nancy Twigg (Homerton); Emma Jones (Selwyn), Millie Bushrod * (Pembroke); Laura Bleehen * (Girton, Captain), Saffron Hicks * (Selwyn), Vianney Gomezgil Yaspik * (St Edmund’s), Hilde Schneemann * (Darwin), Hetta Friend * (Robinson), Rose Scowen *(Magdalene), Sophie Lamont (Corpus Christi), Lauren Gregory * (Corpus Christi)
Replacements: Bridget Withers (Churchill), Sophie Johnson (Pembroke), Cara Prowling * (St John’s), Sonia Ubong (Darwin), Robyn Halcrow (Fitzwilliam), Sibella Egerton (Caius), Dorothy Burrowes (Trinity Hall), Elise Goddard (Pembroke)
* Denotes Blue
# Denotes International