Varsity Match 2019: Oxford On Top Again

04/03/19: For the third year in succession, the Varsity Match was dominated by Oxford, who won eleven of the twelve pairs played at Eton on Saturday, Cambridge's sole success coming in the men's first pair match.

The history of this fixture is one of peaks and troughs and ebbs and flows in the fortunes of the two clubs. On the men's side, Oxford have been experiencing something of a golden age in the last three or four years with a steady flow of strong school players arriving at the university and creating a squad with both quality at the top end and a great deal of depth. On the other hand, Cambridge have simply not had the same number of players to choose from and have relied heavily on the presence of Kinnaird finalist Riki Houlden and the ability of successive captains to recruit players and work on improving the standard of the players available to them.

This year's Cambridge captain Philip Wilkinson - the first Old Rossalian to hold the post - had further problems to contend with, namely a broken kneecap that kept him off court for the majority of the season and the loss to University football of the Remo twins from Highgate and most notably former schools' champiom Kosi Nwuba, all of whom would have strengthened the side. It is greatly to Phillip and Riki's credit - and indeed to everyone else involved at Cambridge - that the club has remained buoyant this year, with considerable improvement shown by players such as Ben Merrett, Viral Gudiwala, Akhil Shah and Nick Choustikov and that the club has recruited several players new to the game at university, all of whom will hopefully continue to play and improve.

Oxford's captain Arthur Wellesley was faced with rather different problems, namely who to leave out of his top six from the strong squad playing regularly on the courts at Iffley Road and even who to leave out of the twelve altogether. Most of the Oxford Peppers team would feel that in another year they would have been candidates for the Half-Blue team - indeed some of them will no doubt be keen to step up in the next year or two - and the second team match was over almost before it had begun, the gulf in quality between the two sides neatly illustrated by the presence in Oxford's fourth pair of Qassi Gaba, a player who had represented the Old Harrovians in the Alan Barber Cup final the weekend before. There was quality and experience throughout the Oxford second team and Gaba, Barnaby Harrison, Crispin Straker, Josh Gordon, Jacob Greenhouse and Dominic Dootson conceded very few points in winning against their Cambridge counterparts - Arthur Clover & Harshal Kalayia, Jack Capstick-Dale & Ashwin Ahuja and Alex Butcher & George Poole.

In the first team match, returning postgrad Anthony Kane and fresher Nick Choustikov fought hard at third pair but were comfortably beaten by the Etonian combination of Ted Macdonald-Buchanan and former Oxford captain Will Ponsonby and the much improved QEB pairing of Gudiwala & Shah got better as their match progressed but lost in three to Noah Caplin - the first player to win a Half-Blue for Fives having learned his Fives at Westway - and the experienced Sam Oppenheimer at second pair. This meant that overall victory in the top men's match went to Oxford fairly quickly, but Light Blue pride was restored at first pair where the Old Westminster pairing of Ben Merrett and the outstanding Riki Houlden had clearly put a lot of thought into their gameplan to counter University champions Arthur Wellesley & Oskar Denby. Merrett was rock solid, Wellesley & Denby frustrated and a little under par and Houlden was able to control the match from start to finish, recording a fine 12-6, 12-6, 12-8 victory to score the day's only Light Blue success and bringing the curtain down on his own six year Varsity match career in impressive style.

Oxford also dominated the ladies match, winning all six pairs, but this was overall a much closer encounter, with Oxford always a little stronger than their Cambridge counterparts but the margin never that wide. Both clubs - and captains Georgia Allen and Ursule Taujanskaite in particular - should be congratulated on their great success at introducing new players to the sport. This fixture is now established as a great learning experience for players in their first year of Fives; as they continue to improve during their time at University, the best of the once beginners become able to move up the ranks and produce a very high quality of Fives in the higher pairs. Both sides also contained a sprinkling of players who played at school - three from Highgate and one from Westminster on the Dark Blue side; two from Shrewsbury, one from Zuoz and one from Westminster on the Light Blue side - and the combinations of more and less experienced players produced a series of entertaining and good quality matches.

In the second team match, Oxford were able to field the experienced former national Under 21 champion Carolina Valensise (not considered for first team selection after a year spent off the court and on the river!) at fourth pair and she was able to control her match against Annabelle Molyneux & Becky Diston. She received excellent support from Izzy Moriarty Whyte, who has worked extremely hard on her game this term, making great strides which enabled her to cope well even when the Cambridge pair looked to keep the ball away from the dangerous Carolina and target her. The Cambridge fifth pair of Divyani Duggal & Ho-Yee Lee looked promising having only come to the game recently but were well beaten by the more experienced and very determined Colette Rocheteau & Ines Barrowcliff and the sixth pair was also won by Oxford, despite a very late call up for Kathleen Brennan, who hadn't played since before Christmas and who put in a very strong performance in the circumstances in support of Old Westminster Katie Birnie, whose strong cutting and power from the back of the court was just too much for the Cambridge pair of Lizzy Shaw & Olivia Hewes, of whom I am sure we will see more next year as they continue to improve.

In the first team game, Oxford split their two University and U21 winning star players Marjolaine Briscoe & Georgia Allen and completed the top six with four players who had all learned their Fives at University - Lauren Rowley, Laura Stokes, Amelia Hepburn and last year's Cambridge captain turned Oxford postgraduate Annie Calderbank. Cambridge fielded captain Ursule Taujanskaite at first pair alongside Pippa Ball, with Annie's sister Clara Calderbank and Salopian Esmé O'Keeffe at second pair and the Westminster/Zuoz combination of Emma Vinen & Sophia Florineth at third. The third pair match looked very close on paper but it was the Oxford pair of Annie Calderbank & Laura Stokes who got off to the best start, with Annie's attacking volleying taking control of the top step and Laura's excellent cutting providing the platform for them to win the first two games comfortably and then hold off a strong fightback from Emma & Sophia to win the third 12-10. Oxford captain Georgia Allen was able to dominate the second pair match, her power and accuracy too much for Clara & Esmé, despite their best efforts, and she was superbly supported by Lauren Rowley in her third Varsity match, having progressed from sixth pair to fourth and now second and proving herself to be undoubtedly the most improved player in the Oxford team.

The match of the day, however, took place at first pair in the ladies match as Oxford's number one Marjolaine Briscoe - double U21, U25, Universities and Universities Mixed champion - partnered the hugely talented but still very inexperienced Amelia Hepburn against the settled Cambridge first pair of Ursule Taujanskaite & Pippa Ball. It quickly became clear that this was going to be a close match; Ursule & Pippa have been playing a lot, including a weekend at the Northern tournament in Shrewsbury a few weeks ago and immediately produced a level of Fives far higher than they had shown earlier in the season in reaching the semi-finals of the Universities tournament. Both were hiting the ball hard but with control, with their set piece and movement and retrieving around the court causing problems for Amelia - still effectively in her first proper year of Fives - and therefore putting huge pressure on Marjolaine to return cuts and finish rallies at the first opportunity. The first game was a thriller that could have gone either way and just went the way of the Oxford pair; the next two games saw Cambridge raise their level further and refine their gameplan, putting Amelia's cutting and back court positioning under real pressure, and seizing control at 2-1 up. At this point, the Oxford pair realised that they had to respond to the Cambridge tactics and try and hit back. Despite her lack of experience, there was a reason why Amelia was playing in the first pair and she began to show exactly why in the fourth and fifth games, improving visibly from rally to rally and game to game, coping better and better from the back court and improving her cutting and returning. Marjolaine - helped by the increasing steadiness from her partner - was able to take control of the rallies more than she had been doing, volleying better, hitting aggressively to the back corners and cutting with both power and control. Ursule & Pippa continued to play well and stay in contention most of the way through the fourth game and then halfway into the fifth, before the Oxford pair finally and decisively moved away at the end to claim victory in front of the large crowd of spectators who had enjoyed watching a tremendous encounter.

The match was followed by the now traditional informal mixed pairs contest, which provides a friendly alternative to the heat of competition in the Varsity match itself and paves the way nicely for the evening dinner, which again took place at Upper Club, preceded by the ever popular champagne reception courtesy of sponsors Pol Roger. 

The match had been preceded by a vintage edition of the alumni contest, where 25 former Oxford and Cambridge students took part in a splendid series of matches that managed to be both friendly and competitive in exactly equal measure, much to the enjoyment of those who took part, who included players who had played their Varsity Fives in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. One court in particular - in a match played to a very fine standard incidentally - managed a combined age hovering around the 250 mark, with only Cambridge's Will Thomas letting the side down and preventing a number much closer to 300 being reached.

Thanks go to George Thomason and Eton for hosting the match, to Phil Keen and his team for the marvellous dinner, to Pol Roger for their generous sponsorship and to the four team captains for making it such an excellent day.


The Nigel Cox view: 

This year’s Varsity Match took place on Sunday Mar 2nd, courtesy of Eton College. Cambridge won the first pair but otherwise Oxford won all the other pairs easily. This is a reflection of an otherwise highly successful season for Oxford in which they have won the Universities tournaments, the Universities Mixed and the EFA Trophy. Under the combined team of Arthur Wellesley & Will Ponsonby the OUEFC has clearly thrived and their success has been well deserved.

In the Blues match Riki Houlden & Ben Merrett were too strong for Oskar Denby & Arthur Wellesley, but still produced a good game to watch. Houlden (a finalist in last years Kinnaird Cup & this year’s Northern Championships) largely dominated the court in rally play, and both cut & returned cut more effectively. Oxford were perhaps complacent as they had beaten Houlden with another player earlier in the season – always a mistake against this most determined of players. All the other pairs I’m afraid were rather one sided. No pair was really stretched. All matches were played in an impeccable spirit.

Oxford and Cambridge Fives matters as more than 80% of Kinnaird winners to date have been at either University, and the success of either side has largely reflected the material going up to the respective universities. About twelve years ago the Old Etonian Fives Club, decided it would help fund a full time Fives coach at Eton College employing initially Seb Cooley, then Mike Hughes, and latterly George Thomason in this role. Under this regime Eton has won the Schools Championships three times and featured in the final for four of the last five years. This has changed the balance of power in the schools game and as Eton send a higher proportion of their boys to Oxford than Cambridge the present pattern looks likely to be repeated for a few years yet. Berkhamsted with three new courts in its prep school has the strongest overall fives coaching potential on its combined junior and senior school staffs and should be the school most likely to break this dominance in the near future. Six of this year’s twelve Oxford men came from Eton (as opposed to only two from the Cambridge twelve).

Cambridge were unfortunate in that their Captain, Philip Wilkinson, was unable to play due to a knee injury. However he has to be congratulated in piecing together a team largely from schools who do not play fives or are not from prominent fives-playing schools. If the game as a whole is to thrive we need the universities to recruit new players as much as possible. The ladies teams have perforce been much more successful at this than the men’s, as there are far fewer girls schools which play fives.

The match was followed by an informal mixed game (which I would hope might become more formal in future), champagne (Pol Roger of course) & a very convivial dinner in the Eton College Cricket Pavilion courtesy of the College & Ralph Oliphant-Callum, whose house chef cooked the dinner, and who himself had introduced nearly half the Oxford players to the game. Cambridge may have to wait until he has retired from his housemastership before they win a Varsity match.


Cambridge names first

Men’s Match: Oxford won 2-1

1. B.Merrett (Westminster & Peterhouse) & R.Houlden (Westminster & Christ’s) beat O.Denby (Harrow & Hertford) & A Wellesley (Eton & Exeter) 3-0 (12-6, 12-6, 12-8)

2. V.Gudiwala (QE Barnet & St.John’s) & A.Shah (QE Barnet & Clare) lost to S.Oppenheimer (Eton & Christ Church) & N.Caplin (Latymer Upper & Magdalen) 0-3 (1-12, 3-12, 7-12)

3. A.Kane (Charterhouse & Magdalene) & N.Choustikov (City of London & Fitzwilliam) lost to E.Macdonald-Buchanan (Eton & St.Benet’s Hall) & W.Ponsonby (Eton & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (3-12, 3-12, 3-12)

Men’s Second Team Match (Penguins vs Peppers): Oxford won 3-0

1. A.Clover (Eton & Girton) & H.Kalaiya (QE Barnet & Clare) lost to B.Harrison (Eton & Somerville) & Q.Gaba (Harrow & Queen’s) 0-3 (0-12, 2-12, 4-12)

2. J.Capstick-Dale (Eton & Queens’) & A.Ahuja (St.Paul’s & Gonville & Caius) lost to J.Gordon (Highgate & Keble) & C.Straker (Eton & Exeter) 0-3 (1-12, 2-12, 4-12)

3. A.Butcher (Winchester & St.John’s) & G.Poole (Lady Manners & Clare) lost to D.Dootson (Shrewsbury & Keble) & J.Greenhouse (City of London & Regent’s Park) 0-3 (4-12, 0-12, 3-12)

Ladies’ Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. P.Ball (Robert Smyth Academy & Christ’s) & U.Taujanskaite (Shrewsbury & Selwyn) lost to M.Briscoe (Highgate & University) & A.Hepburn (Bennett Memorial Diocesan School & Worcester) 2-3 (12-14, 12-10, 12-8, 8-12, 6-12)

2. E.O’Keeffe (Shrewsbury & Corpus Christi) & C.Calderbank (Wycombe Abbey & Robinson) lost to G.Allen (Highgate & University) & L.Rowley (North London Collegiate & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (7-12, 4-12, 4-12)

3. S.Florineth (Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz & Selwyn) & E.Vinen (Westminster & Fitzwilliam) lost to A.Calderbank (Wycombe Abbey & Oriel) & L.Stokes (Clifton College & University) 0-3 (4-12, 5-12, 10-12)

Ladies’ Second Team Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. A.Molyneux (Hills Road Sixth Form & St.John’s) & B.Diston (Nonsuch High School for Girls & Robinson) lost to C.Valensise (Highgate & Pembroke) & I.Moriarty Whyte (Kendrick School, Reading & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (2-12, 9-12, 5-12)

2. D.Duggal (Harrow International School, Hong Kong & Robinson) & H-Y Lee (Leventhorpe Academy & Robinson) lost to I.Barrowcliff (Magdalen College School & Christ Church) & C.Rocheteau (The Crossley Heath School & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (4-12, 1-12, 0-12)

3. O.Hewes (King Edward’s, Bath & Selwyn) & L.Shaw (Sevenoaks & Robinson) lost to K.Birnie (Westminster & Exeter) & K.Brennan (Immanuel Lutheran College & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (9-12, 7-12, 12-14)

Alumni Match: Cambridge beat Oxford 3½-2½

R.Tyler & N.Shaw drew with J.Piggot & J.Cobb 2-2 (12-7, 12-8, 3-12, 7-12)

N.Turnbull & S.Balaji beat T.Kirkby & S.Thatcher 3-0 (12-7, 12-6, 12-10)

R.Morgan & R.Thorogood lost to M.Fiennes & J.Flowers 1-3 (14-12, 4-12, 7-12, 6-12)

K.Hird/C.Cooley/P.Thompson lost to M.Chinery & S.Ranasinghe 1-3 (10-12, 4-12, 12-3, 9-12)

W.Thomas & S.Woolfries beat N.Cox & S.Nowinski 2-1 (12-4, 9-12, 12-4)

E.Osen & S.Greasley beat R.Wood & R.Black 3-0 (12-7, 12-3, 15-10)


Thanks to Anthony Kane for many of the photos.

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