Universities Tournament 2023: Oxbridge Still Hold Sway
24/10/23: The 2023 Jesters Universities Tournament took place on Saturday, with the men's tournament taking place at Highgate and the women's tournament at Cambridge.
The men's competition featured 17 pairs representing 11 different universities, with plenty of players new to the game at university along with others who had learned their Fives at St.Olave's, Repton, QE Barnet, Marlborough, Harrow, Ipswich, Charterhouse, Westminster, KES Birmingham, Eton, Westway, Highgate, Alleyn's and Shrewsbury.
The tournament was one of the most wide open for some years, with several pairs in with a chance of winning. Oxford have dominated the competition in recent years and Beau Swallow & Joel Robb were keen to extend that winning sequence; there were plenty of others looking to break that run, with London, Durham, Exeter, Oxford Brookes, Cambridge and Bath all coming into the tournament with hopes of overall victory.
With the Highgate courts generally holding up well in pretty wet and unpleasant conditions, the morning group phase sorted the field out for the knockout stages. This is a notoriously difficult competition to predict and there were some intriguing matches; Group C quickly established itself as the Group of Death, with the Harrovian/Edwardian Exeter pairing of Fred Prickett & Tom Hoskins having to hit the ground running to see off the twin threats of an impressive London 3 (the QE Barnet pairing of Abilash Sivathasan and Roshan Jeyakumar, who immediately hit an extremely high level despite not having played for several years) and a strong Cambridge 2 - a Westway/Eton combination of Jamie Levinson & Max Krefting. The Cambridge pair were especially unlucky to lose both their key matches 15-13, while the fourth pair in the group, the Oxford second string of Hatam Barma & Cyril Schroeder, were left to focus on the Plate. All was not lost for Cambridge 2, as the format allowed for a repechage round between the second and third place finishers in each of the four groups and they were left to see how the other groups were panning out to find out who would be standing in their way of a quarter-final place.
Group A was fairly straightforward with early bookies' favourites London 1 (experienced Olavians Prajeeth Sathiyamoorthy & Dom Robson) cruising through their three matches with Bath (another Olavian in Ethan Nancekivell-Smith alongside Reptonian Henry Barton-Smith) comfortably in second place and Cambridge 4 beating Cambridge 6 to finish third. Group D threw up some closer matches, with Lewis Drummond & George Poole (Cambridge 3) pushing Oxford Brookes hard in the first match of the day before the Brookes pairing of Gwydion Wiseman & Salopian Dom Mcloughlin really hit their straps against Oxford 1, Beau & Joel only winning through to claim the top spot by the skin of their teeth. The Cambridge 5 pairing of Albie Gavshon & Olly Perry also showed enough in their matches to suggest that they would be a threat in the Plate competition later on.
Group B was the one group with five teams in and was dominated in impressive style by Durham, 2021 finalist Isaac Weaver teaming up with Harrovian fresher Will Tate to beat nearest challengers Cambridge 1 (Theo Seely & Freddie Kottler) comfortably in the group decider. The Cambridge pair made sure of second place with wins over London 2 (Westminsters Oliver Meredith & Brian Chen), the scratch Exeter/RAU pairing of Ipswichian Hugh Catchpole & Carthusian Hugh Hutchinson and the Cambridge 7 novices trio (not all playing at the same time it should be noted).
The Cambridge 1 win over London 2 and the London 3 win over Cambridge 2 in Group B set up a couple of derby matches in the repechage round as Cambridge 1 & 2 and London 2 & 3 took each other on for a place in the quarter-finals, while Bath came up against Cambridge 3. The repechage round was completed by Oxford Brookes and Cambridge 4 (Amit Prasad & Alex Davies), which resulted in a routine victory for the dangerous Brookes pair, while Bath came through 12-10 against Drummond & Poole, who fought hard and pushed their more experienced opponents all the way. In the two derby matches, Cambridge 2 gave their first pair a scare before succumbing 9-12 and the Barnet boys continued to produce some impressive Fives to overcome the Westminsters in the all London game.
The four repechage winners then moved on to the quarter-final stage to pit themselves against the four group winners from earlier in the day. A second successive London derby saw the end of the road for the QEB pair as Abilash & Roshan finally met their match in the form of Prajeeth & Dom, who were still looking ominously good. Prickett & Hoskins produced a convincing performance to win the battle of the West Country for Exeter against Bath, while Oxford 1 came through a tough match against Varsity rivals Cambridge 1, finding themselves 3-7 down before finding their range and going on a match-winning run of 12 unanswered points. The other match saw Brookes up against Durham, with Isaac Weaver and Gwydion Wiseman - rivals on a Rugby Fives court - taking each other on for a semi-final place. This was a fine match, with Dom Mcloughlin and Will Tate both providing excellent support, but Weaver proved to be the star turn, dominating proceedings and demonstrating a combination of power, athleticism and accuracy that suggested they might pose a genuine threat to London 1 in the semi-finals.
With a hard deadline of 5pm at Highgate, the semi-finals were scheduled to be one game to 15. The Durham/London side of the draw was well ahead of the Exeter/Oxford side, however, and both Durham and London were keen to play a best of three match. With time still a factor, it was agreed to play a best of three with no setting in the first two games and a shortened third game decider should it reach that point. The subsequent match was the game of the tournament: Prajeeth & Dom had been in the proverbial armchair all day up to this point and cruised out to an 8-2 lead but suddenly they were coming under severe pressure, thanks to some spectacular Fives pyrotechnics from Isaac Weaver, who seemed to be everywhere, and some terrific support from Will Tate, who was rock solid at the set piece and from the back of the court, allowing his partner to produce the fireworks. The Durham pair closed the gap and then took the first game 12-11. Was an upset on the cards? Dom & Prajeeth hit back in the second game, regaining control and forcing enough errors from the Durham pair to level at 1-1. The third game was played to 7, with the serving team starting the game at second hand. The pressurised nature of a short game produced immediate tension, with every rally counting right from the start. Weaver & Tate quickly refound their inspired form from the first game and although they made a couple of mistakes to keep the London pair in it and although Prajeeth & Dom were able to strike a couple of blows of their own, it was the Durham pair who reached the winning line first, taking it 7-5 to clinch their place in the final.
The other semi-final saw Oxford take on Exeter, and it was the Exeter "Green Machine" who made the early running with Fred Prickett & Tom Hoskins playing an impressive hard-cutting and attacking volleying game to lead 6-3 and then 8-6. A game to 15 doesn't allow much room for manoeuvre, though, and one bad cutting hand from the Exeter team shifted the momentum. Beau & Joel had already shown their ability to go on a run of points in their quarter-final win and they did it again here, seizing the moment superbly to storm through to a 15-8 win.
The final was played on the same terms as the London/Durham semi-final - best of three but with no setting and a shortened third game to ensure a finish before running out of time. Could Durham raise their game again and hit the heights they had reached in their semi-final? Could Oxford afford to go behind this time and did they have another devastating run of points in them? The first game was close and crucial. The winning Durham formula seemed initially to be working again, with Weaver dominating the court and Tate playing the supporting role to perfection. As they had done throughout the knockout phase, however, Beau & Joel didn't panic, biding their time and once again timing their run to perfection towards the end of the first game, playing their best Fives just when they needed it and just as the first signs of fatigue began to show on the Durham pair, with Will beginning to struggle with cramp and Isaac starting to run out of rocket fuel. With the strain beginning to show, the Durham pair really needed to win the first game to stand a chance. They didn't, with Oxford taking it 12-10 and from that point on the result was never really in doubt. There was a late second game rally from Durham to make the scoreline a bit closer, but their race was run by that point and Beau & Joel closed the match out in the second game efficiently and effectively to keep the trophy in Oxford hands for the eighth time in the last nine years.
As always, the plate competitions continued to play out joyously away from the show courts. Oxford Brookes won the quarter-finalists plate thanks to a combination of good Fives and a willingness to keep playing for as long as they could find anyone to play against. Cambridge 2 - so unlucky in the group stages - showed their quality in Plate A, despite a determined effort from London 2, who were forced to retire hurt (more cramp - clearly not fit enough these students...) when 6-7 down in the final. Plate A was also notable for the quietly impressive Cambridge 5 upsetting the internal pecking order with a good win over Cambridge 4. The Plate B round robin also produced some excellent matches, with the lower Cambridge pairings gaining good experience, and the Oxford 2 and Exeter/RAU pairings finally gaining reward on the scoreboard for having played some excellent Fives all day long, Hatam & Cyril just pipping the two Hughs to the Plate B crown with an 8-5 win in the crucial match.
The organiser was then able to breathe a sigh of relief, with the courts remaining dry and playable all day and the three competitions coming in nicely on time at 4:45 (Plate B), 4:50 (Plate A) and 4:53 (main tournament).
Emma Spencer reports:
Magdalene hosted the women's universities tournament this year, with Cambridge 1, Lucy Bland and Alex Davies playing Cambridge 2, Emma Spencer and Anna Fitzpatrick.
It was a very rainy day, with storm Babet (and Oxford) threatening to call off the match, but Cambridge's women's side played on.
Playing best out three, the first game started strong for Lucy and Alex which was a trend seen throughout the day. Lucy and Alex played well, scoring 12-0 against Emma and Anna.
Continuing to the second game, the match followed in a similar vein with Alex and Lucy comfortably beating the less experienced second pair. Cambridge 1 had played second pair at varsity and their skill was excellent, with strong cut returns from both. Anna had only started playing the week of the universities and played remarkably well considering, and with her performance she has a strong fives career ahead of her.
Overall Cambridge 1 beat Cambridge 2 by two games to nil.
Our thanks go to Magdalene College, Cambridge, Highgate, Jack Flowers and the Mallinson sports centre staff for their help and for hosting the tournament, to the Jesters for their continued sponsorship and travel subsidy, which makes it possible for many of the players to come from far and wide and to all of the players who did so, including some very early starts from Durham and Exeter in particular. This is always a fun tournament and a chance for quite a few players to get the gloves back on and play who don't otherwise have much of an opportunity to get on court regularly and this year was a particularly vintage edition. Long may it continue!
London 3 (A.Sivathasan & R.Jeyakumar) beat London 2 (O.Meredith & B.Chen) 12-7
Oxford Brookes (G.Wiseman & D.Mcloughlin) beat Cambridge 4 (A.Prasad & A.Davies) 12-5
Bath (E.Nancekivell-Smith & H.Barton-Smith) beat Cambridge 3 (L.Drummond & G.Poole) 12-10
Cambridge 1 (F.Kottler & T.Seely) beat Cambridge 2 (J.Levinson & M.Krefting) 12-9
London 1 (D.Robson & P.Sathiyamoorthy) beat London 3 15-5
Durham (I.Weaver & W.Tate) beat Oxford Brookes 15-8
Exeter (F.Prickett & T.Hoskins) beat Bath 15-5
Oxford 1 (B.Swallow & J.Robb) beat Cambridge 1 15-7
Durham beat London 1 2-1 (12-11, 7-12, 7-5)
Oxford 1 beat Exeter 15-8
Oxford 1 beat Durham 2-0 (12-10, 12-6)
Oxford Brookes beat London 3 12-4
Oxford Brookes beat Bath 12-9
Cambridge 6 (J.Lai & E.Barrett) beat Cambridge 7 (T.Ford/S.Tuchel/M.Ahmed) 12-10
Cambridge 3 beat Cambridge 6 12-1
Cambridge 2 beat Exeter/Royal Agricultural University (H.Catchpole & H.Hutchinson) 12-2
London 2 beat Oxford 2 (H.Barma & C.Schroeder) 12-5
Cambridge 5 (A.Gavshon & O.Perry) beat Cambridge 4 12-8
Cambridge 2 beat Cambridge 3 15-4
London 2 beat Cambridge 5 15-11
Cambridge 2 beat London 2 7-6 (ret)
Plate B (Round Robin)
1. Oxford 2
3. Cambridge 4
4. Cambridge 6
5. Cambridge 7
Cambridge 1 (A.Davies & L.Bland) beat Cambridge 2 (E.Spencer & A.Fitzpatrick) 2-0