Universities 2018: Oxford Win Again

22/10/18: An exciting and well-supported Jesters Universities tournament at Eton on Saturday ended with Oxford winning both the men's and women's titles for the third year in succession as Georgia Allen & Marjolaine Briscoe retained their trophy and Arthur Wellesley & Oskar Denby stepped up to claim their first win.

Watch the videos of the finals: Women's final  Men's final: Game One  Game Two  Game Three

This year's tournament featured 28 pairs in total, with representatives from Oxford, Cambridge, Oxford Brookes, Manchester, Warwick, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, LSE, King's, Royal Holloway, UCL, Imperial, Courtauld Institute of Art and RADA. It was slightly disappointing to see a smaller turnout this year from Universities beyond the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle, with some strong potential pairs unavailable (Durham, Exeter for example) and some good players unable to find suitable partners (Birmingham, Cardiff).

Nevertheless, the competition featured the usual assortment of regular club/tournament players, players making the most of a rare opportunity to get on court, a few returning to the game after a significant absence and some playing in their first ever competition, having only started to play at University. We were also delighted to welcome a rogue Rugby Fives player making a first foray onto an Eton court. The number of Fives-playing schools represented was an impressively wide-ranging one, with players taking part who had learned their Fives variously at Highgate, Shrewsbury, St.Olave's, Zuoz, Eton, Harrow, Berkhamsted, Westminster, QE Barnet, Emanuel, Mill Hill, Aldenham, City of London, Marlborough, St.Paul's Darjeeling, St.Bartholomew's Newbury, Rossall and Westway. 

The women's competition was dominated from start to finish by defending champions Georgia Allen and Marjolaine Briscoe from Oxford, who were head and shoulders above the rest of the field. The late withdrawal of Oxford's Carolina Valensise meant that a second all-Oxford final in succession became more unlikely, with the rest of the pairs quite closely matched. As the group stages developed, it was Cambridge 1 (Pippa Ball & Ursule Taujanskaite) who got the better of Oxford 2 (Helen Pugh & Amelia Hepburn) to finish top of Group A, with the London pair of Emily O'Malley (UCL) and Lois Galletly (Imperial) finishing third ahead of the inexperienced Oxford 4 (Colette Rocheteau & Ines Barrowcliff) and Cambridge 3 (Lizzie Shaw & Olivia Hewes), both of whom improved greatly during the course of the day.

With Oxford 1 winning Group B for the loss of only 2 points, there was a huge battle behind them for the second qualifying place. Cambridge 2 (Clara Calderbank & Sophia Florineth) made the first move, with a hard-fought 15-11 win in the first round against Oxford 3 (Scarlet Katz Roberts & Lauren Rowley), but it was the Salopian London pair of Sarah Jackman & Erin Leatherbarrow who proved themselves the strongest, beating the Cambridge pair 15-5 and the Oxford pair 15-1, with Erin returning cut consistently and Sarah in outstanding form, dominating the court, volleying well and finding the bottom of the buttress regularly to finish off rallies.

The five non-qualifying pairs played a second round robin in the afternoon for the plate, with London 2 coming out on top ahead of Oxford 3 and Cambridge 2, much to the delight of Emily & Lois, whose play improved steadily during the course of the competition. The all-Oxford semi-final went the way of Allen & Briscoe who simply had far too much firepower for Pugh & Hepburn. The other semi-final was the game of the day in the women's competition, as Cambridge 1 took on London 1 for a place in the final. Cambridge captain Ursule Taujanskaite started strongly against her fellow Salopians, winning the set piece battle thanks to some strong returning, which was matched by her partner Pippa Ball. 12-6 to Cambridge in the first game and an Oxford v Cambridge grudge match final looked to be on the cards. Erin and in particular Sarah had other ideas, though. The London pair began cutting more effectively and with more and more rallies taking place on their serve, Sarah & Erin began to take control. Once again, Sarah was the outstanding player on court from the second game onwards, playing with both power and skill and with solid support from Erin, the London pair took both the second and third games to 7 to make it to their first ever national final, much-deserved reward for three years of determined practice, steady improvement and experience gained from consistent attendance at EFA tournaments.

Unsurprisingly (the earlier group match had finished 15-2 to Oxford), the final proved to be a bridge too far for the London pair. Georgia & Marjolaine continued to play with the accuracy, pace and power that had been too much for all of their opponents all day long and they retained their title in double quick time, winning the final 12-4, 12-0, meaning that they won the trophy having only conceded seven points in seven games all day. This was a third successive win for Oxford in the competition, a first hat-trick since the tournament started back in 2009.

The Oxford men's team have also dominated their competition in recent years, with wins in 2015, 16 and 17 all featuring the now departed James Piggot. The Cambridge run of 10 successive wins from 2005-2014 will take some beating, but the focus of Oxford's first string this year of captain Arthur Wellesley and secretary Oskar Denby was firmly on seeing off the multiple challengers lined up to take the trophy off the Dark Blues.

Arthur & Oskar navigated their way through the group stages efficiently and without alarm, Imperial's Sahil Shah & Kotka Lim qualifying in second place behind them, but the rest of the Oxford squad was struggling, with both Oxford 2 (Noah Caplin & Barnaby Harrison) and Oxford 3 (Crispin Straker & Rushab Badiani) failing to make it out of their group, beaten to second place by Cambridge 2 (Ben Merrett & Akhil Shah) and Liverpool/Nottingham (Aroop Bhattacharya & Chris Bird) respectively. Those two groups were won by King's (Tom McCahon & Can Koksal), who looked very strong in the early stages and the experienced UCL pair of Joe Marks & Abhishek Bhattacharya, both on about their third degree and looking more like a veterans tournament pair then a universities one. There was a minor upset in the final group, where the dynamic and highly-motivated Oxford Brookes pair of Sam Mcloughlin & Hal Gibson-Leitao beat Cambridge 1 (Riki Houlden & Viral Gudiwala) 12-8 to claim top spot.

The pair to suffer most as a result of that upset were King's, who found themselves up against a Cambridge pair anxious to make up for that defeat in their quarter-final. McCahon had been a semi-finalist for Durham in this competition as an undergraduate in 2016, but his hopes of making the last four again alongside Old Westminster fresher Koksal were quickly dashed as they conceded a hefty early lead to Houlden and Gudiwala. Once ahead, Kinnaird finalist and former Universities champion Houlden was always going to be a hard man to shift and he duly closed the match out, leaving the King's pair feeling that they might have missed a chance. Mcloughlin & Gibson-Leitao continued to impress, the Shrewsbury/Mill Hill pairing dispatching Merrett & Shah efficiently and UCL won the all-London battle, beating Imperial 15-6. At the top of the draw, Wellesley & Denby continued their untroubled progress with a convincing win over the ex-Rydal coaches pairing of Bhattacharya minor & Bird.

The semi-finals are often the best matches of these one day tournaments and this was probably true in this case. Both lasted almost exactly the same length of time, despite one taking two games and the other going to three. That should tell you all you need to know about the match between UCL and Brookes, with every point fought for tooth and nail in an epic first game, which eventually went the way of UCL's golden oldies 12-10. The second game was less close on the scoreboard but no less hard fought on court but a first appearance in the final of this competition for Brookes will have to wait for another year as the Cholmeleian veterans closed it out 12-4. The other semi-final saw the Oxford v Cambridge first pair battle that had been avoided in the women's competition. The first game was tight from start to finish, Gudiwala doing a fine job withstanding the pressure put on him by Wellesley & Denby, and Houlden was able to take control of the key points once the game had been set to 10-10. 15-12 and first blood to the Light Blues. The dynamics of the match began to change early on in the second. Denby & Wellesley both have recent experience of University and U21 semi-finals and finals and didn't panic. They sensibly concentrated on their strengths with Wellesley cutting strongly and volleying aggressively while the unflashy Denby began to find some very effective lines and lengths into the buttress from the back of the court. Unlike in the first game, the pressure - a result of Oxford's reduced error count and increased consistency - this time began to tell on the Cambridge pair, who were unable to establish a set piece platform on which to build winning rallies and runs of points. 12-4 to Oxford and into the decider, and while the Oxford pair were not quite as dominant as in the second game, they stayed in control and once in the lead, never lost it to win 12-7 and claim their place in the final.

The final was an interesting match up - Oxford's undergraduates against UCL's postgrads. Joe Marks was the only one of the four to have previously appeared in the final of the competition (for UCL in 2014 during the course of his second degree) but his partner Bhattacharya has also been round the buttress a few times (the 2012 Universities tournament report - at a time when Denby was just leaving prep school - already describes him as "experienced") and they had a wealth of league and tournament experience to draw upon. The Oxford pair had the advantage of playing together regularly as a pair for a while, including a semi-final in this tournament last year and with both pairs having had similar runs to the final, the stage was set for a close match. What transpired was an almost exact repeat of Oxford's semi-final and a near identical scoreline. The first game was nip and tuck all the way through to 10-10 at which point the UCL pair seized the initiative to win 15-12. In the semi-final, the Oxford pair had then stepped it up in the second game; it wasn't quite the same story here as the UCL pair's level dropped in game two, allowing Oxford to forge ahead without having to do anything too spectacular. With the second game won 12-3, the Oxford pair's confidence was restored and they were able to relax a bit more and pick up their play once again as they had done at their best in the semi-final. Denby's accuracy into the buttress was again telling, keeping the UCL pair under the pump and creating volleying chances for his partner Wellesley but Joe & Abs had recovered their form and having conceded an early 2-6 lead, had fought back to 5-7 and were looking threatening. In these close games, however, you have to keep your concentration right through to the end. With Oxford serving at 7-5 and momentum on UCL's side, a barren hand would have had the Oxford pair cutting under considerable pressure. It didn't happen, though - a couple of weaker cuts, a couple of sloppy errors and some decent returning and the game had gone in a flash from 7-5 to 12-5. Game over and another Oxford win to carry on their current dominance of University Fives.

Oxford 2 beat Oxford 3 - slightly shamefacedly after their earlier failure to qualify - in the Plate A final, with Cambridge 3 (Phil Wilkinson & Nick Choustikov) and Royal Holloway 1 (Will Seath & Ollie Avery) also making it to the last four. Plate B featured two epic semis as the Old Aldenhamian Manchester/Warwick pair of Anthony Jacovides & Rabin Selliah beat the LSE (rechristened Lost Students in Eton) pair of Jivan Navani & Rohin Mittal 15-14 while Imperial 2 (Saajan Shah & Neelesh Ravichandran) won through against Sheffield (Lukas Vanhaesebroeck & Julian Hanton) by the same scoreline, Manchester/Warwick winning the final. Plate C was won by Cambridge 4 (Alex Butcher & Harshil Kalaiya), who beat Royal Holloway 2 (Elliot Bramwell & Joe Smith).

Thanks go to the Jesters for providing the travel subsidies that allow so many to compete, to George Thomason at Eton, and to all those who played and organised pairs to take part and make it such an enjoyable day.


Women's tournament


Oxford 1 (G.Allen & M.Briscoe) beat Oxford 2 (H.Pugh & A.Hepburn) 2-0 (12-0, 12-1)

London 1 (S.Jackman & E.Leatherbarrow) beat Cambridge 1 (P.Ball & U.Taujanskaite) 2-1 (6-12, 12-7, 12-7)


Oxford 1 beat London 1 2-0 (12-4, 12-0)


Cambridge 1 beat Oxford 2 15-5


1. London 2 (E.O'Malley & L.Galletly)

2. Oxford 3 (S.Katz Roberts & L.Rowley)

3. Cambridge 2 (C.Calderbank & S.Florineth)

4. Oxford 4 (C.Rocheteau & I.Barrowcliff)

5. Cambridge 3 (L.Shaw & O.Hewes)

Men's tournament


Oxford 1 (A.Wellesley & O.Denby) beat Liverpool/Nottingham (Ar.Bhattacharya & C.Bird) 15-4

Cambridge 1 (R.Houlden & V.Gudiwala) beat King's (T.McCahon & C.Koksal) 15-6

UCL (Ab.Bhattacharya & J.Marks) beat Imperial 1 (S.Shah & K.Lim) 15-6

Oxford Brookes (S.Mcloughlin & H.Gibson-Leitao) beat Cambridge 2 (B.Merrett & A.Shah) 15-8


Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 1 2-1 (12-15, 12-4, 12-7)

UCL beat Oxford Brookes 2-0 (12-10, 12-5)


Oxford 1 beat UCL 2-1 (12-15, 12-3, 12-5)

Plate A


Sheffield (L.Vanhaesebroeck & J.Hanton) beat Cambridge 4 (H.Kalaiya & A.Butcher) 12-2

Manchester/Warwick (A.Jacovides & R.Selliah) beat Royal Holloway 2 (E.Bramwell & J.Smith) 12-0

LSE 1 (J.Navani & R.Mittal) beat LSE 2 (R.Jaiswal & J.Barrows) scr


Cambridge 3 (P.Wilkinson & N.Choustikov) beat Manchester/Warwick 15-10

Oxford 2 (N.Caplin & B.Harrison) beat LSE 1 15-9

Oxford 3 (C.Straker & R.Badiani) beat Sheffield 15-5

Royal Holloway 1 (W.Seath & O.Avery) beat Imperial 2 (S.Shah & N.Ravichandran) 15-13


Oxford 2 beat Cambridge 3 15-0

Oxford 3 beat Royal Holloway 1 15-5


Oxford 2 beat Oxford 3 15-9


Royal Holloway 1 beat Cambridge 3 15-13

Plate B

Manchester/Warwick beat LSE 1 15-14

Imperial 2 beat Sheffield 15-14


Manchester/Warwick beat Imperial 2 15-3


LSE 1 beat Sheffield 15-5

Plate C

Cambridge 4 beat Royal Holloway 2 2-0 (12-3, 12-4)

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