Varsity Match 2017: Eton's House of Blues

06/03/17: The Varsity Match at Eton on Saturday produced a whitewash in the men's match as Oxford swept the board, winning all six pairs. The women's match was more evenly balanced with Oxford's top two pairs winning them the blues match 2-1 and Cambridge's greater depth of experience giving them a 3-0 victory in the second team fixture.

Nigel Cox reports:

Cambridge have won the men's Varsity match for the last four years but this year the Oxford men’s Blues team and Peppers both won 3 – 0. With Oxford fielding two previous blues as low as their fifth pair this suggested a stronger team than usual.

This year’s match was notable for a dramatic and tense contest at first pair and increasingly easy Oxford victories with each descending pair. Pair 1 won 3 – 2, pair 2 3 – 1 and pairs 3, 4, 5 and 6 all won 3 - 0. It was also notable - at least in modern times and possibly at all - for being the first Varsity match in which all the players in one team came from the same school (Eton) and five out of six from the same house, courtesy of Ralph Oliphant-Callum. This is a remarkable tribute to both their coach, Mike Hughes, and Ralph himself. When he took over his house at Eton he had hardly played but decided that playing fives with the boys both wrestled them away from their laptops and was a good way of getting to know them when they first joined his house.

The Oxford first pair, James Piggot & James Cobb were beaten last year by a powerful Cambridge first pair of whom Riki Houlden was still playing, this year supported by fellow Old Westminster Ben Merrett. The first game was closely fought with Cambridge winning 15 – 14 as they did last year after which Piggott and Cobb rather fell apart. This year, however, they upped the speed and aggression of their game in the second and won fairly comfortably 12 – 9, Merrett making more errors in the faster paced game. At this stage one spectator predicted it would go to 14 all in the fifth game, and another said that writing up the Oxford pairs game would be easy “just say how athletic Cobb is and how fast Piggot’s reflexes are”. Prescient stuff: Oxford won the third game 12 -0, but lost the fourth to a relatively hard fought 9 – 12 leaving the match 2 all. The fifth game then edged point by point to 10 all when Riki Houlden opted for foot down at 4 and duly they crept on each side scoring a point in turn. At foot down and on match point enjoined by his partner to leave a deep drive Cobb had to accelerate impressively to return the ball that bounced just an inch inside the court. After another two closely fought rallies in which each side was cut down as Cobb tantalisingly allowed himself to be caught repeatedly retrieving defensively (but superbly so) on the front step, the Oxford pair won the game and the match. This was a patchy match with superb play inter-mixed with some unforced errors but with the result depending on the last possible point of an extended fifth game, was dramatic entertainment for the spectators.

Some enduring memories: consistently effortless and sometimes breath-taking returns of cut, Ben Merrett’s sporting declaration he had hit the ball with both hands when 13 – 12 up in the fifth, Houlden’s returns of cut, and the amount of time he spends on his back on the floor of the court during the match. The two shots of the match: an astonishing return by James Piggot when on the floor in the back court after the ball had hit the brick in the back right hand corner and James Cobb’s persistently good retrieving & astonishing turn of acceleration to retrieve the ball in the point described above.

Piggot and Houlden are two of the games most promising young players and this direct confrontation between them made for a see-saw but fascinating match to watch for which we should congratulate them. Though there is at present no obvious challenger to the top two Kinnaird seeds, history suggests that a very high proportion of winners have played in the first pair for Oxford or Cambridge. Both these players have the speed of reflex that could put them in that class. If they both keep playing then watch this space.

Gareth Hoskins reports:

It is testament to the rapid recent growth in the women's game at Oxford and Cambridge that an off-hand remark pointing out that there has only been a women's Varsity match since 2007 and a six pair match since 2011 produced looks of incredulity from many of this year's group of players. 

The standard at the top end of the match has remained high across all ten years, although as with the men's match it is subject to fluctuations according to the quality of the new intake of those who have played at school. The real difference in the last five or six years has come from the increasing number of players taking the game up for the first time at University and the huge strides made in the quality of the matches lower down the order in a short space of time. This year, more than half of the players only took up the game at University; Cambridge, though, had ten of last year's team returning and therefore had the edge over Oxford in terms of experience while Oxford, despite featuring five players who only started playing this year, were in the enviable position of choosing from a squad of twenty players.

The first team match was won by Oxford thanks to dominant performances from their top two pairs. Salopians Hannah Pritchard and Rosie Parr repeated their Universities final win over Elli Hullis and Esme O'Keeffe without ever looking troubled and Cholmeleian freshers Georgia Allen and Helen Pugh cruised past Cambridge captains past and present Hannah Rapley and Annie Cave at second pair. Third pair was a tremendous match between four players who started playing at University. Martha Samano and Elena Zanchini edged the first game 12-11 but Susanna Xu and Rhonda Shiels hit back, winning the second game to 7 and dominating the third. The fourth game was neck and neck with all four players playing some fantastic Fives, belying their relative inexperience, and went to 11-11 then 13-13 before the Cambridge pair avoided having to go into a fifth game by clinching the winning point.

The second team fixture also produced some excellent matches. With her parents waiting to drive her to Cambridge immediately after the end of play to take part in the squash Varsity later in the afternoon, it was inevitable that Charly Eaton Hart's match was going to go to five games. This was a match of fluctuating fortunes as Charly and Ellie Oppenheim for Oxford and Annie Calderbank and Pippa Ball for Cambridge traded blows for over two and a half hours. The key to the match - as so often - was the cut returns. The Oxford pair had passages of play where they returned lots of cuts and forged ahead; the Cambridge pair returned more consistently across the whole five games, however, and at 2-4 down in the fifth the tide turned decisively in their favour as the Oxford cut returns dried up and the Cambridge pair's superior movement around the court took them to victory in an excellent and close contest. Oxford novices Nina Ludekens and Kirsten Campbell Guion at fifth pair were unlucky to find themselves up against last year's Cambridge captain Sophie Kelly, playing down the order having barely been on court since last year's match, and hard-hitting Rugby Fives player Lottie Simpson. The Oxford pair had little opportunity to get into the match but they are both fine prospects and will be ones to watch next year. Cambridge completed their 3-0 second team win at sixth pair as Emma Vinen and Sapphire Armitage just had the edge over Lauren Rowley and Colette Rocheteau, a 14-11 win in the second game the crucial moment in a match, which was played at a standard light years away from some of the sixth pair matches in the earlier years of this fixture.

The main event was followed by an informal mixed pairs match, with ten pairs taking the opportunity to play some mixed Fives and enjoy themselves in a relaxed and friendly game that provided an excellent counterpoint to the main match and a sociable prelude to the Pol Roger sponsored reception and dinner at Bekynton.

The match was also preceded by the now traditional alumni fixture, which featured players from Varsity matches from 1965 to 2016.

Thanks to Mike Hughes and everyone at Eton for hosting the match and the dinner, to Pol Roger for their sponsorship and to all the players and spectators who made it such an enjoyable occasion.


Men's Blues Match (Oxford names first):

Oxford won 3-0

1. J.Cobb (Eton & St.John’s) & J.Piggot (Eton & St.Catherine’s) beat B.Merrett (Westminster & Peterhouse) & R.Houlden (Westminster & Christ’s) 3-2 (14-15, 12-9, 12-0, 9-12, 15-14)

2. T.Kirkby (Eton & St.Anne’s) & S.Oppenheimer (Eton & Christ Church) beat S.Balaji (St.Olave’s & Queens’) & A.Stewart (Westminster & Jesus) 3-1 (12-4, 9-12, 12-8, 12-6)

3. W.Ponsonby (Eton & St.Catherine’s) & A Wellesley (Eton & Exeter) beat N.Turnbull (RGS, High Wycombe & Trinity Hall) & J.Remo (Highgate & Queens’) 3-0 (12-7, 12-4, 12-8)


Penguins vs Peppers (Oxford names first):

Oxford won 3-0

1. B.Harrison (Eton & Somerville) & T.Critchley (Westminster & Pembroke) beat D.Remo (Highgate & Emmanuel) & K.Bilimoria (Eton & Caius) 3-0 (12-7, 12-9, 12-4)

2. S.Mehta (Westminster & St.Peter’s) & O.Sale (Eton & Wadham) beat N.Malik (Westminster & Jesus) & N.Walker (Charterhouse & Homerton) 3-0 (12-1, 12-4, 12-4)

3. R.Badiani (QE Barnet & St.Catherine’s) & J.Greenhouse (City of London & Regent’s Park) beat P.Wilkinson (Rossall & Sidney Sussex) & E.Day-Collins (Emanuel & Peterhouse) 3-0 (12-6, 12-2, 12-10)


Ladies Match (Cambridge names first):

Oxford won 2-1

1. E.Hullis (Ipswich High School & Wolfson) & E.O’Keeffe (Shrewsbury & Corpus Christi) lost to H.Pritchard (Shrewsbury & Queen’s) & R.Parr (Shrewsbury & Christ Church) 0-3 (5-12, 5-12, 4-12)

2. A.Cave (St.Bartholomew’s, Newbury & Magdalene) & H Rapley (Highgate & Newnham) lost to G.Allen (Highgate & University) & H.Pugh (Highgate & University) 0-3 (3-12, 5-12, 3-12)

3. S.Xu (Wallington High School for Girls & Caius) & R.Shiels (Rainey Endowed School & Sidney Sussex) beat E.Zanchini (D’Overbroeck’s & St.Catherine’s) & M.Samano (Twyford CE High School & St.Peter’s) 3-1 (11-12, 12-7, 12-1, 14-13)


Ladies Second Team Match (Cambridge names first):

Cambridge won 3-0

1. A.Calderbank (Wycombe Abbey & Peterhouse) & P.Ball (Robert Smyth Academy & Christ’s) beat E.Oppenheim (Camden School for Girls & St.Catherine’s) & C.Eaton Hart (Dr.Challoner’s High & St.Anne’s) 3-2 (9-12, 12-7, 11-14, 12-7, 12-4)

2. S.Kelly (Benenden & Magdalene) & L.Simpson (Rugby & Robinson) beat N.Ludekens (Hills Road Sixth Form & St.Catherine’s) & K.Campbell Guion (Peter Symonds College & Christ Church) 3-0 (12-0, 12-3, 12-2)

3. S.Armitage (Edinburgh Academy & Jesus) & E.Vinen (Westminster & Fitzwilliam) beat C.Rocheteau (The Crossley Heath School & St.Catherine’s) & L.Rowley (North London Collegiate & St.Catherine’s) 3-0 (12-4, 14-11, 12-6)


Alumni Match

J.Black & R.Bryan lost to S.Welti & W.Betts 1-3 (7-12, 8-12, 12-3, 6-12)

R.Morgan & D.Davis drew with F.Imrie & F.Collings 1-1 (12-8, 8-12) F.Imrie then replaced by J.Skelton, score unrecorded.

J.Weller & J.Skelton beat M.Platt & M.Fiennes 2-1 (12-10, 10-12, 12-5)

K.Hird & C.Cooley beat N.Cox & H.Asquith 2-0 (12-8, 12-7)

M.Street & S.Woolfries beat W.Hedley & C.Kershaw 12-7

N.Margerison & S.Nowinski beat W.Hedley & C.Kershaw 12-7

N.Margerison & C.Cooley beat S.Nowinski & N.Cox 12-8

S.Woolfries & K.Hird lost to H.Asquith & M.Street 1-2 (7-12, 12-9, 2-12)

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