Varsity 2016 saw the Oxford women's team playing before the men's varsity match for the first time since it began in 1911. Unfortunately the tabs don't yet have a women's team, but Birmingham Uni and the South East London Giants formed a combined team to play 15-a-side in a pre-varsity women's exhibition match.
Despite the lack of tabs to shoe, encouragement from the men's team had the Oxford women fired up for varsity day and hungry for their first ever win. Helen Baxendale didn't waste time getting down to business, working hard for the first clearance. She drew cheers from the crowd with an amazing mark, plucking the ball out of the air with ease. Birmingham/London were desperate in defence but with Oxford's persistent forward entries it wasn't long before captain Rachel Paterson got Oxford onto the scoreboard.
The ruck duo of Caitlin Clunie O'Connor and Genevieve Martin were winning most of the clearances and providing strong contests around the ground. They were aided by Claire Jago, and double Emma (Lawrance and Coulson), who put their bodies on the line clearing the ball out of packs and continuing Oxford's constant pushes forward.
Oxford's forward line boasted the return of Pip Coore to the team, who managed to not only get her hands on the footy but also fame, with a post-game interview with Macca on ABC Radio show "Australia All Over". Pip was joined by the seasoned in-and-under Victorian Kellie McGill and Spanish import Marta Perez Alcantara, as well as goal-sneak Rachel. Oxford's attack benefitted from the quick hands of the Gaelic football recruits Laura and Sorcha (so quick that the umpire struggled to see!), who were willing to run through the midfield as well as pushing forward, demonstrating a great adaptability to the Aussie game.
Down the other end of the ground, the Oxford backline was strengthened by the return of Emma McIntosh to the team, along with first-gamer Cara Volpe joining Fiona McLoughlin, Kaddy Noonan and Alexis Brown. Altogether the backline provided solid defence with intense tackling and good skills under pressure. After several rebounds from the halfback line, Oxford's forward entries resulted in two late snaps from Rachel, which found their way through the big posts and gave the dark blues a solid lead going into half time.
With plenty of talent in the Birmingham/London side, Oxford couldn't afford to get complacent in the second half. Thankfully the Oxford women were ready for the challenge and came out firing. This was emulated by valiant defender Cara, who after gaining a reputation for her fierce (and not always completely legal) tackling at training, managed to channel her aggression into textbook tackles and bumps in her first (and hopefully not last!) ever game of Aussie Rules. Fiona, our Blues Ice Hockey goalie, continued to impress with her desperate efforts on the last line of defence and her signature "hedgehog" move. Overall, Oxford's net of skilled defenders continued to mop up several forward entries from Birmingham/London and stifled their attempts to score.
In her typical style, Emma L could be seen shrugging off multiple tackles on more than one occasion to race out of the pack, resulting in several key runs forward. She also managed a bullet-like kick on the run that was so low it almost grazed the ground but somehow landed on the chest of Rachel, who went back and kicked another goal for the dark blues. Meanwhile, Helen continued to rack up countless possessions, running down the ground and constantly injecting the ball into the Oxford forward line. The opposition were shocked by her bone-crunching tackles throughout the match, which made them think twice when taking possession in case one of her big hits was coming their way.
Birmingham/London mounted a late comeback, kicking two great goals early on in the final quarter. In response, Oxford once again pushed forward with Marta taking a fantastic grab in the forward line and drilling the ball directly to Rachel in the square. The captain kicked true and the Oxford women marched to their first victory, defeating Birmingham/London 9.8.62 to 3.7.25.
The Varsity Match
After inspiring messages had flooded in from around the world, and the Oxford Women’s team had rampaged to an historic victory against a strong London/Birmingham team, the Horspath grounds felt alight, perhaps partly due to the barbeque fanned by the customary Horspath gale. The Tabs had arrived early and emerged from their excessively large bus the motley crew many of us knew so well. When they told us they had no valuables to mention in their change rooms, our suspicions regarding their attachment to the Varsity cup were confirmed.
After a nervous warm up, OUARFC went onto the field with a rousing cheer from the spectators and an untested player setup. Unit Hugh Bartlett had been moved to a tagging role in the midfield, while Riggas took the role of organising the defence. Charlie Rae, who had spent the past two months on sabbatical from all things good in life, was rested in the forward line. As soon as Sam Merson and the talented Tab ruckman clashed a dogged back and forth battle begun. It quickly become clear that neither side would dominate. Running with the wind, the Tabs struck first, scoring a goal from the first of many free kicks. Nerves were soon calmed when the familiar Horspath sleet began falling, and OUARFC pulled back with early goal from Flounder Wylie and Grey Johnston. Quarter time score: Tabs 24 - OUARFC 19.
The game styles contrasted, with Tabs standouts working together and finding strong contested marks, while Oxford characteristically punished mistakes with massive tackles at every contest. After continuing to present strongly at centre half forward, Flounder found himself flat on his face after a heavy collision – he claimed friendly fire, but would be a poor judge. After passing a Pretorian concussion test, he was sent to sit out until the second half. With an increasing on field casualties, our bench played a crucial role. Alex Coccia, Tayo Sanders II came onto the field with a ferocity few would have imagined when these fresh faced visitors turned up early to the first training session. Ben Young’s excitement could hardly be contained as he catapulted himself at the opposition and Pat Thewlis and Tommy Griffin’s cheery personas vanished. The Tabs did well in the second quarter, but OUARFC pressure limited their goal kicking accuracy. Down almost three goals late in the quarter, Geoff ‘Condor’ Pascoe produced a moment of magic that changed the tone of the match, grabbing the ball on the flank, weaving left, selling some candy, and kicking a magnificent curving ball right through the middle, almost into the car park. The crowd, and Condor, went wild. This kept us in the game at half time, Tabs 38 - OUARFC 31
The third quarter was a deadlock. Fist Duff, encouraged by the TV camera placed directly behind him, returned to his fan-favourite defence tactic, ably assisted by footy trip specialist McGilvray, who had exchanged his Jordans for footy boots for his strongest season in memory. Shrike Llewellyn placed is body on the line throughout the game, and was sounding like a birther with his constant questioning of Tab heritage. This tactic seemed to work, as the Tabs became feisty across the ground. Lockdown defender Pigeon Hunn was punched twice in the face despite stating clearly that this was against the rules. Kiran “Rhino” Patel was roaming around like a wounded beast, threatening anyone who ventured near the ball or flanker Nish Patel, who was tireless through the day. At one point Rhino lined up a Tab from 20m, hitting him at full pace as he received a hospital pass from a teammate, to the delight of captain Kyle Turner. As a result, Kiz may be the first OUARFC representative to achieve a cauliflower ear. The ever ratcheting intensity bode well, we were still down a goal at the final change. Tabs 46 - OUARFC 40
In the final quarter, inspired by rousing speeches from Squid Kirby and Blue Turner, things started to click for Oxford. Squid, inspired by his own speech and his sizable fan squad, started finding his leads honoured for the first time all season. Grey ‘Lowest prices are just the beginning’ Johnston was convinced to stop saving himself for netball, and was put into Wing Attack to display his trademark silky smooth grabs and goals. Riggas took control of the back line, where Sam Calderwood made a number of trademark clearances from the backline, while Ollie Bartlett man-handled his opponent. Ewan Selkirk and Phil Jakeman provided run in the forward flanks, while club man Ell Neame got in and under. The skilled Daniher Tracey score a trademark opportunistic goal early on. Charlie Rae continued to crash the packs, and, with five minutes to go, took a grab on the boundary. The crowd hushed and immediately there was a sense that this was a crucial moment. With no daylight to be seen between the posts (not that the English weather provided much) Charlie had only the wind to take the ball through. After a Matthew Lloyd style preparation Charlie got the kick off and willed it on its curved path through the posts, to the jubilation of the crowd, who trashed the Neame family Gazebo in celebration. The game was by no means over, and the Tabs soon clawed a goal back, bringing nerves to a frayed edge. A final desperate struggle ensued at the Tab’s half forward line. The siren rang as a free was awarded to the Tab ruck, 40m from the goal. While players where oblivious to the score, this in fact could have been the Cup-saving kick. At the kick, the man on the mark, 6’8” Sam Merson leapt at least 3 inches to smother the ball, and the roar from the crowd suggested the game was ours.
Celebrations ensued, tempered slightly by uncertainty regarding the exact score. As Captain Blue Turner and Pres Fist Duff chatted to BBC, who had beat Channel 7 in a fierce battle for TV rights, the umpires consulted. After what seemed like an age, OUARFC was determined to be indeed the winner, by a solitary straight kick. The Tabs left the field confused at the applause from OUARFC, being so used to abuse from Teddy Alexander.
OUARFC 9.4. 58 shoed the Tabs 7.10. 52.
Overall, these were OUARFC matches for the ages, with the Varsity competition reaching a new peak of intensity, and all at OUARFC getting just deserts for their hard work.
A huge thanks to all of our team including Rachel Paterson, Oliver Van Hecke, Zac Gross, Brody Foy, Rob Cornish, Joshua Combs, Adam Kellett, Jack Valmadre, Ross Gales, Nath, and Shaun Berry, and to the support of the women’s team and the all the others who supported the teams in person and from afar.