When Fiona Kennedy turned up at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium for the pre-Varsity Matches Challenge and photo-shoot the hairs stood up on the back of her neck.
It may not be the traditional venue of Twickenham for this year’s annual clashes between Oxford and Cambridge, but the Dark Blues’ skipper immediately felt she was in historic surroundings.
“It is a huge honour to play at Welford Road. When you walk in you can feel the history,” said the 21-year-old Scottish-born outside half.
Now she hopes her team can live up to the setting and stop Cambridge making it four wins in a row for only the second time since the women’s fixture began in 1988.
The last two games have both ended in narrow defeats and with some of the new players available to her team this time out, Kennedy has every right to feel confident of causing an upset.
“The last couple of games have been a great advert for the women’s game. They were both so intensely contested,” said Kennedy, who has just completed her finals in English and History.
“We’re aiming to put on another great show and we’ve got our eyes on the prize. We’ve learned over the last 18 months not to take anything for granted and the fact we’ve even got this opportunity is phenomenal.
“It has been an 18 months like no other with lots of lows. To have the opportunity to run out and play against Cambridge after everything we’ve all been through is so exciting.
“It is a completely different challenge to previous season. There is a bit of freshness to it, expectations go out of the window and it is just a challenge we are all relishing.”
The law variations probably played into Kennedy’s selection process and she has picked her two international recruits, Italian flanker Bianca Coltellini and Wales back row dynamo Manon Johnes, in her back line. Coltellini will figure at centre, Johnes has been transformed into a scrum half and there is a Hong Kong wing with World Cup experience on the bench in Laurel Chor.
Just as importantly, Kennedy is one of nine returning Blues in a side packed full of experience and determination. No 8 Hannah Cooper will be playing in her sixth Varsity Matches and hoping to pick up her first win in Oxford colours after two wins for Cambridge.
“They are all great to have in the environment and have made a positive impact. It is great for our girls to be playing with players of the calibre of Manon, who has played so much rugby this year for Bristol Bears and Wales because of her elite athlete status,” added Kennedy.
“She has become strongly embedded in the team and that’s been great for the team as a whole. She has been great at integrating herself and the other girls have been great in welcoming her.”
Coltellini and Johnes have also had considerable international experience at sevens rugby, so their skills should be able to translate to the faster, more open game that Kennedy is predicting under the new laws. In their new positions they should get the ball in their hands more often and get the chance to influence the game far more.
“There will be lots of ball in play time and I’m sure we will be feeling it in the legs, especially if it is a warm day,” she added.
“The run into final exams coincided with training starting and that was a challenge for the girls. I’m really proud of the way they have managed their timetables and, in many ways, rugby has provided a nice balance.
“We’ve worked hard and now we’re ready to play hard. It has taken a lot to get to this point and we want it to be a true celebration of women’s rugby.”
Playing against Oxford in the Varsity Matches at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium should provide Elisha Clark with a little bit of light relief after the year she has had. In the final year of her six at university training to be a doctor, she has spent much of the past 12 months on the front line in the NHS.
There have been regular 13 hour shifts at hospitals like Addenbrooke’s, Papworth and Ipswich, and it hasn’t just been her. As one of eight medical students in the Light Blues’ matchday squad it has been a testing time for many.
“It has been a crazy time. When we did our elections last year, I didn’t expect to have so much on my plate, although I do like a challenge,” admitted Clark.
“After six years at Cambridge I am finally due to start my doctoring job in earnest in July. Doctors and medical friends would say I’ve been concentrating too much on rugby this year, while the coaches would say I haven’t been doing enough.
“We’ve hit it pretty hard on the training front and we’ve been chomping at the bit to get back into rugby. There was a time when none of us thought we would get a Varsity Match or any kind of rugby.
“I am so excited and it’s going to be a real privilege to pull on the shirt at Leicester. It is very much the sign of an end of what has been a horrible year.
“I was on the front line in Papworth Hospital for a few months when the pandemic was at its peak. Being able to have a run around on a patch of grass with your mates became a real privilege and we’re all just happy to be back playing.
“To be able to come to somewhere as iconic as Leicester to play a Varsity Match with your team-mates is going to make the day even more special.”
One of 12 returning Blues in the matchday squad, Clark has plenty of experience around her. The Shuttleworth twins, the 2019 captain Fiona and Jenni, are back for a fourth time and if Alice Elgar comes off the bench, she will win her sixth Blue.
But there have also been some useful additions to Clark’s team. Centre Maggie Simpson has played a lot of rugby at Berkley College in America, prop Vianney Gomezgil Yaspik, set to become the first Mexican to play in the Varsity Matches, has vast experience of playing in Canada, USA and Italy, and No 8 Anna Park enjoyed great success playing the America at Stanford University.
“We are the best team we have ever been, we have so much strength and fitness. Everyone has given it everything to get to this point,” added Clark.
“We’ve got a lot of returning strength and we’ve also got some international players coming through. The team we will take out is a team that has really stepped up.
“It is definitely going to be a faster game because of the law variations. We are generally a very fit team and we’ve been doing a lot of extra running and fitness in the build-up.
“We are all at university to get a degree, not really to play rugby, but we are all so passionate about the game and our team. Everyone has been helping each other out and we are such a good group of friends on and off the pitch.”
Having won five of the last six matches, the Light Blues will go in as favourites on paper at least. Clark will know, however, that the last two games have been tight affairs, both of which Cambridge sneaked 8-5. So, what will her final message be to her team before she runs down the terrace and onto the hallowed turf at Welford Road?
“We’ve all been pushing each other hard and it is going to be a mixture of relief and excitement when we go out onto the pitch,” she said.
“I’m going to go out feeling confident that we can win it again and the last words will be the same as usual – GDBO!”