You can tell how long a gap there has been between Varsity Matches by the blind panic that came over the Cambridge skipper Stephen Leonard when he realised he needed to take the Varsity Match cup to a photo-shoot at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium a few weeks ago.
The memory of being presented with the cup at Twickenham in December, 2019, may still be there, but his biggest problem was in locating the various pieces of the trophy. Thankfully, he managed to complete the silverware jigsaw and all is well for today’s presentation.
“The trophy got taken apart after we won in 2019 and went to various parts of the university. The players took it back to their colleges to show off and when lockdown happened last year there was a bit of a panic about what to do with it,” admitted Leonard.
“The main part of the trophy went home with me, the lid ended up somewhere in north Cambridge and the base was in Oxford. It meant I had to make a mad dash around the country to get all the pieces back together again and then had to give it a good clean.
“It looked a bit worse for wear to begin with, but then one of the lads read that toothpaste was good for cleaning silver and so it now has a minty glow!”
If Leonard, who will be winning his fourth Blue today, thought tracking down the trophy was hard, he knows that holding onto it after the 139th Varsity Match is going to be even harder. With limited preparation, adapted laws and a highly motivated Oxford side to contend with, registering a 65th Light Blue win in a series dating back to 1872 won’t come easily.
“We will have played five games before the big dance and I’ve never seen a group of players work so hard towards a Varsity Match. We’ve had about a year to build up to this one game and because of what has gone on in the world in that time getting to play, and win, will mean so much more to all of us,” added Leonard.
“I’m delighted we are getting a game out of the season. The real success is just getting a squad together to represent Cambridge against Oxford anywhere in the country.
“On top of that, we all get the honour of playing at Welford Road, which is just fantastic. I hate to think how many press-ups, burpees and shuttle runs the players have put in training on their own over the past year getting ready for this one moment.”
“I’m pretty hopeful we will have a nice summer’s day and a good dry ball. We want to create chances and then put them away in what promises to be a much quicker game than normal.”
The ball in play time in one of Cambridge’s warm-up games was 42 minutes and Leonard is expecting the lungs to burst and the legs to wilt as time goes on today. What won’t give in, though, is the will of the players on both sides to push themselves to the limit to pull off a victory.
Leonard will have five other returning Blues with him and a notable newcomer at outside half in Etienne Dussartre, a former France U20 player who has featured in the Heineken Champions Cup and Top 14. Left wing Fergus Jemphrey was the two-try hero in the last Varsity Match, which the Light Blues won 15-0, and Jake Hennessey is returning for a third Blue after spending a year in France.
“We’ve got a few younger guys who have burst through, along with a few who at the start of the season we didn’t think were going to challenge. It has meant I had quite a few selection headaches,” explained Leonard.
Just as with his opposite number, George Messum, he has kept faith with traditional front five forwards despite the fact there will be no scrums or mauls. Now it is just a case of coming to terms with the law variations on the big day.
“As part of the rules put in place by the RFU we have to select front five players as per usual and we were happy to do that. They all went away and worked hard towards this goal and it would have been unjust not to include them,” added Leonard.
“The law variations are a bit jarring and the game can turn into U8s rugby again, whereby you give it to the biggest guy to run hard at the defensive line. But there is no doubt it speeds up the game dramatically.
“Under the normal laws you get a chance to re-set when there is a scrum and catch your breath. Now you only get 10-15 seconds break. It is all incredibly exciting and from a Cambridge perspective we can’t wait to get on with it.”
George Messum knows all about the highs and lows of the Varsity Match. In 2014 he was part of an Oxford side that won 43-6 at Twickenham and in 2019 he lasted a mere eight minutes before injury wrecked his dreams of a second triumph.
Yet here he is again hoping for one last hurrah to bring down the curtain on a career that has seen him emerge from the Northampton Saints Academy to play for Loughborough Students, captain England Students and Oxford and play for Bedford Blues.
He may not be the oldest player in the history of the Varsity Match, but his bones are telling him the time has come to make use of the other things he’s learned during his two spells at Oxford.
“It will be nice to have a last hurrah before hanging up the boots. The reality of academics, and life in general, have caught up with me, but the aim is to go out on a high,” said the 29-year-old back row man.
“The guys have kept me young in spirit even if my body tells me otherwise. I will certainly stay involved in the club because once you’ve been involved in such a great institution it becomes a part of you.
“I wasn’t able to make the five year reunion of the team I was due to captain in 2015, but I guess the guys will understand the reason why when I run out at Welford Road. It will be an honour to play at a stadium that encapsulates a really traditional rugby club.”
The role of captain is always a vital one at both Oxford and Cambridge, but never before has a leader had to cope with so many problems as in the past 18 or more months. The mere fact Messum and his opposite number Stephen Leonard have been able to get a team to Leicester to play a game is a triumph in its own right.
But the ultimate prize will be, as always, winning on the day in the world’s greatest amateur fixture. Messum was part of the great Oxford sides that set a record of six wins in a row, but Leonard and co will arrive at Welford Road looking to make it back-to-back victories.
“We want to go out and express ourselves and come away with a victory. It is going to be intense,” admits Messum.
“Varsity Matches are all about physicality, aggression and playing for the full 80. Add in adapted rules and all the ingredients are there for an explosive afternoon of entertaining rugby.
“We will be focussing on quality and the type of game we want to play. We have had some tough sessions in the build-up and we’ve embraced different tactics due to the weather as well as the adapted laws.
“This has been a year like no other and we have latched onto that thought process. We have had some interesting curve balls thrown at us and normally we are preparing for the Varsity Match by training and playing when it’s wet and windy.
“Hopefully, it is going to be warm and sunny on the big day and there will be plenty of action. We’re just happy to be able to get the game on and really excited about where we are. Now we’re just looking forward getting out there and executing our game plan.”
Playing under the adapted laws promoted by the RFU to help teams to get back to playing safely during the pandemic has taken a little bit of getting used to, but Messum believes that will only enhance the occasion and not serve as a distraction.
“We’ve had a great season despite all the disruptions around the pandemic. We split between playing fixtures and conditioned games in the build-up because we wanted to mix things up a bit,” he added.
“We’ve fine tuned things in the last two weeks and you could say it has been a bit of a longer build up into this Varsity Match that the pervious ones. The main thing I’ve learned over the years is the collective of the team is how these games are won.
“The basics of rugby are still there and are still as important as ever, despite the law amendments. Everyone enjoys their carries, tackles and hitting the rucks and the play in play time is likely to be far higher than anyone is used to.”
One of 13 returning Blues in the Oxford matchday squad, six of who have tasted victory before, he has also picked up a number of useful recruits. Joining him in the back row will be American Eagles flanker Andrew Durutalo, who has played in the Rugby World Cup and at the Olympics.
Andrew Humberstone has come into the centre to join his elder brother, Tom, behind the scrum, while young scrum half Calum Grant is following in the footsteps of elder brother Andrew, who was in the 2015 Dark Blues team in the second row.