Varsity Match 2022
08/03/22: Oxford continued their recent domination of the Varsity Match at Eton on Saturday, but there was a closing of the gap and there was well-deserved success for Cambridge in the Women's second team match.
After last year's rather low-key match - which was rather miraculously squeezed into the summer term between lockdowns - it was wonderful to see the full traditional Varsity Match day back in full swing.
The action started with the return of the alumni match, which saw 33 players relive past glories in a series of friendly matches, featuring players who took part in the Varsity Matches of 1965, 2021 and several points in between, including a first appearance in the alumni match for Oxford's Denys Firth, a five-time Kinnaird winner between 1974 and 1980.
The match in itself has been dominated by Oxford in recent seasons and on the men's side, that trend continued, although the gap was undoubtedly narrower this year. Cambridge's first pair had a huge amount of Varsity Match experience between them, but Viral Gudiwala & Nick Choustikov were unable to prevent the Oxford first string of Ben Hart & Crispin Straker winning in straight games. Second pair went the same way as former Oxford captain Qassi Gaba teamed up with fresher Beau Swallow to see off the spirited challenge of Tom Xu & Theodore Seely. The 3-0 win was completed at third pair, which featured a couple of notable records, Elana Garfield-Osen - on the Cambridge side - becoming the first woman to gain selection for the men's top six and Spencer Chapman - for Oxford - becoming almost certainly the oldest player to win an Eton Fives Half-Blue (possibly one of the oldest in any sport?). This was the tightest of the top three matches, but Spencer and Oxford captain James Green always had the edge in each of the three games over Elana and Panav Patel.
There were more firsts in the men's second team match, with the Cambridge cohort of George Poole, Lewis Drummond, Sam Turner, Isaac Gianfrancesco, Abraham Alsalihi and Olivier Dietrich all coming to the sport at University having not played at school. This is partly a sign of the (to be welcomed!) widening of the net in the Oxbridge admissions process and it has changed the way that the University clubs are now run; gone are the days when the captain could just whistle up yet another Etonian or Harrovian from the Trinity College bar. There is now a real empahsis on bringing new players into the sport, on introducing them to the delights of playing Fives and coaching them to get them up to as high a standard as possible in the time available. Great credit goes here to the Cambridge club as a whole (and indeed to Oxford, who are also now embracing this new approach, with two "beginners" making it into the Oxford second team as well), captains Dion Huang and Sze-Lynn Huen and also former women's captain Jessye Tu, the driving force behind the Magdalene College club, which has been a key component of this whole process, as the lessons learned from the women's Oxbridge clubs in recent years begin to filter through to the clubs as a whole. The expert coaching input of Peter Boughton has also had an impact and the standard produced by the Cambridge second six was very impressive. Ultimately, it was not enough to overcome their Oxford counterparts, with Hatam Barma & Ed Aldous at first pair, Ed Taylor & Jonah Poulard at second pair and Joel Robb & Cyril Schroeder at third pair all having a bit too much experience in the end, although the third pair in particular was notable for the first two games being shared 14-12, 11-14 before the Oxford pair eventually moved away to complete a full house of Dark Blue wins.
The top end of the women's match was also dominated by Oxford, who despite losing a couple of experienced players from last year's team still had a strong core in the shape of Berkhamstedian captain Freya Butler, Cholmeleians Carolina Valensise and Gemma Smith-Bingham and Varsity Match veteran Annie Calderbank. The Cambridge first pair of Jessye Tu & Sze-Lynn Huen and the second pair of Alex Davies & Sophie Lumsdon played some far better Fives than the scorelines in their matches suggest, but an unchallenged Oxford dominance in the set piece in both matches meant that the top two Oxford pairs cruised to comfortable straight games wins. Both third pairs featured players new to the game, with three of the four starting this year and Oxford secretary Imi Culhane having only started last season in a heavily disrupted year. Imi & Sophie Clifford-King were hugely impressive as they won 3-0 against Laura Simpson & Sarah Dauris, conceding only four points and hopefully announcing themselves as potential stars in the making in the wider women's game in years to come.
The Cambridge women's second team turned out to be the Light Blue stars of the day. Charlotte Bowman was at fourth pair for Cambridge and not eligible for the top three pairs as she is at Anglia Ruskin; the experience gained from her time at Uppingham and her training with the Cambridge squad for the last two years was enough to keep the spirited Oxford pair of Jess Howie & Emma Gilbert at bay and she was ably supported in a really high quality match by Emma Spencer, who more than played her part, demonstrating the benefits of regular practice and hard work by playing at a level that she was nowhere near even a few weeks ago. With the Oxford third pair of Agatha Pethers and Julia Schaub proving too strong for Emilia Murray & Emma Cohen, the overall second team result came down to the second pair match, which gradually built up into an absolute classic. First blood went to Oxford, with Jess Ebner-Statt & Iris Bertrand finishing strongly to win the first game 12-7; Leah Hurst & Jess Marais hit back in the second game to take it 12-10, with Leah - a talented tennis player - beginning to cause the Oxford pair problems with her fierce cutting and attacking shots. Jess & Iris regrouped well in the third, began to return more cuts and give Leah & Jess fewer attacking opportunities and won it 12-5, but the Cambridge pair weren't finished, raising their game again in the fourth to level at 2-2. With a good crowd watching, the tension rising and the match in the balance, all four players responded in the fifth game by playing their best Fives of the match, with the overall standard almost unrecognisable from the early exchanges in game one. The Oxford pair gave their all and could have done no more, but Leah's athleticism and ability to get to balls that the other three players couldn't was ultimately the (very narrow!) difference between the two pairs as she & Jess ran out 12-9 winners, much to their personal delight and to the delight of the watching Cambridge contingent, who deserved something to celebrate for their overall efforts.
The usual informal mixed matches followed to conclude proceedings and then it was nice to be able to have a formal dinner again this year - rather than pizzas and champagne in the car park - although it was probably a good thing that proceedings finished fairly early to allow everyone to get back to Oxford and Cambridge. As always we are grateful to Eton for hosting the match and the dinner and to Pol Roger for supplying the champagne for the winning pairs.
The Nigel Cox view:
The 2022 Varsity Match took place on a very cold, but mercifully dry day at Eton. The result was substantially the same as for the last six years with Oxford winning both the Blues match and the Peppers by 3-0 in each case. All three games in the Blues games were won by Oxford 3-0, but were notably less one sided than in the last two years. The aggregate Cambridge first team scores for all three pairs was 51 points compared to 18 points in 2020 and 2021. The matches in all three courts were clearly more closely contested than in recent years, but all three Oxford pairs were clearly stronger. This year however remains the last of the RDO-C years in which players nourished at Eton by Housemaster Ralph Oliphant-Callum played in the match. Two years ago I predicted that Oxford’s dominance might wane following his retirement from running a house at Eton. Next year we shall see.
For once the second team matches were of more (and considerable) interest. All six Cambridge players had come from non-Eton-Fives-playing-schools and had learnt their fives whilst at the University. The first two pairs were easily beaten by their more experienced and skilled Oxford counterparts but the games looked a lot less unequal than the scores suggested. The most interesting game was in the third pair where only one of the players on court had been to a Fives playing school. It took nearly two hours to complete the first two games leaving them at one game all, after which the Oxford pair won the last two fairly easily. The whole match represents a completely new development in Varsity Fives and Cambridge, and the captain Dion Huang should be saluted and congratulated on raising such a team. I believe this is in no small part due to the recently emergent and flourishing Magdalene College Fives club based on the single court in the college. Why has such a club not risen and thrived before, and how can we ensure that it continues to do so? The game as a whole needs as many new players as it can get, and it is great that people can see that pupils from NEFPS are meeting with success.
The composition of the Blues teams is largely determined by the chance arrival of good players at each University (tempered by the diplomatic skills of captains in retaining the occasional less willing star player). This applies less to the women's team where fewer ready-made players arrive and the women's captains have to recruit and coach the majority of their players in time for the Varsity Match. Oxford’s predominance here is due to the consistent coaching and encouragement from Gareth Hoskins. The overall men’s result would become less predictable were the result less dependent on one or two stars at the top. Increasing the teams to say five pairs in the main blues team (or have a single team result based on a seven pair match, perhaps with six blues awarded as at present) would reduce this effect and make the overall matches more meaningful and reflect more closely the effort required to win.
Winners of each pair in all matches were rewarded with a bottle of Pol Roger to whom we are very grateful. We are also very grateful for Eton College for providing Upper Club, over the Cricket pavilion, as a venue for the evening meal. Eton are about to redevelop much of its sporting facilities and the courts will probably not be available for this match for the next two or three years. We remain deeply in their debt that they have allowed us to use their courts for this fixture for so many years.
Women’s Match: Oxford won 3-0
1. J.Tu (Magdalene) & S-L Yuen (Girton) lost to F.Butler (Exeter) & C.Valensise (Pembroke) 0-3 (2-12, 2-12, 2-12)
2. A.Davies (Magdalene) & S.Lumsdon (Pembroke) lost to G.Smith-Bingham (St.Edmund Hall) & A.Calderbank (Oriel) 0-3 (1-12, 0-12, 1-12)
3. L.Simpson (Magdalene) & S.Dauris (Magdalene) lost to S.Clifford-King (Worcester) & I.Culhane (Worcester) 0-3 (2-12, 2-12, 0-12)
Women’s Second Team Match: Cambridge won 2-1
1. C.Bowman (Anglia Ruskin) & E.Spencer (Magdalene) beat J.Howie (Exeter) & E.Gilbert (St.Catherine's) 3-0 (12-8, 12-7, 12-5)
2. L.Hurst (Clare) & J.Marais (Lucy Cavendish) beat J.Ebner-Statt (Jesus) & I.Bertrand (University) 3-2 (7-12, 12-10, 5-12, 12-8, 12-9)
3. E.Murray (St.John’s) & E.Cohen (St.John’s) lost to J.Schaub (Green Templeton) & A.Pethers (Magdalen) 0-3 (0-12, 6-12, 1-12)
Men’s Match: Oxford won 3-0
1. V.Gudiwala (St.John’s) & N.Choustikov (Fitzwilliam) lost to B.Hart (Kellogg) & C.Straker (Exeter) 0-3 (6-12, 5-12, 5-12)
2. T.Seely (Trinity) & T.Xu (Jesus) lost to B.Swallow (Somerville) & Q.Gaba (Queen’s) 0-3 (6-12, 0-12, 7-12)
3. P.Patel (Downing) & E.Garfield-Osen (Selwyn) lost to S.Chapman (Wycliffe Hall) & J.Green (Exeter) 0-3 (7-12, 8-12, 7-12)
Men’s Second Team Match (Penguins vs Peppers): Oxford won 3-0
1. G.Poole (Clare) & L.Drummond (Magdalene) lost to H.Barma (Mansfield) & E.Aldous (St.Hugh’s) 0-3 (5-12, 1-12, 1-12)
2. S.Turner (Churchill) & I.Gianfrancesco (Magdalene) lost to J.Poulard (New) & E.Taylor (St.Edmund Hall) 0-3 (2-12, 12-15, 5-12)
3. O.Dietrich (Downing) & A.Alsalihi (Magdalene) lost to J.Robb (Exeter) & C.Schroeder (St.Edmund Hall) 1-3 (14-12, 11-14, 4-12, 5-12)
Cambridge 6 Oxford 2
T.Barker & R.Tyler lost to J.Toop & O.Denby 1-3 (12-2, 2-12, 7-12, 3-12)
G.Chapman & K.Hird beat R.Worth & J.Ibbetson-Price 3-0 (12-7, 12-9, 12-7)
A.Knight/N.Turnbull/A.Shah* beat P.Frankopan & M.Chinery 2-1 (11-12, 12-7, 12-9)
W.Thomas & P.Thompson beat M.Platt & S.Thatcher 2-1 (12-5, 7-12, 12-10)
R.Swallow & R.Thorogood lost to H.Asquith & M.Briscoe 1-2 (7-12, 12-5, 8-12)
P.Wilkinson & I.Mitchell beat S.Nowinski & J.Greenhouse 3-1 (12-10, 14-12, 8-12, 12-9)
J.Asquith & S.Woolfries beat N.Cox & D.Firth 2-0 (12-4, 12-1)
N.Lilienthal & N.Walker beat R.Wood & G.Day 3-1 (12-1, 13-15, 12-3, 12-5)
*1st set Turnbull & Knight, 2nd set Shah & Knight, 3rd set Shah & Turnbull