Universities 2017: Oxford In Overdrive
27/10/17: For the second year in a row, Oxford University did the double at the Jesters Universities tournament, which took place at Eton last weekend. Dark Blues James Piggot and Tom Kirkby retained the men's title they won last year, while Georgia Allen and Marjolaine Briscoe won an all-Oxford women's final against Carolina Valensise and defending champion Rosie Parr.
Once again, the Universities tournament provided a showcase for some of the emerging Fives talent around the country as well as giving an opportunity for many players to get on court for the first time this year or even for the first time since leaving school, given the lack of university courts outside Oxford and Cambridge. It was also exciting to see so many players new to the game who have picked it up at university or at clubs away from the traditional school heartlands of the sport. There were even a pair of rogue Rugby Fives players, as Ed Kay and David Butler - top ranked players in the other code - tried their hand at the three-wall game, putting in a very respectable showing indeed.
Overall, 33 pairs attended the tournament with 21 different universities/institutions represented: Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, York, Cardiff, Surrey, Bath, UCL, LSE, BPP, Royal Holloway, Imperial, Brunel, RADA, Courtauld Institute of Art, Oxford Brookes and Leicester. As well as the Rugby Fives players and newcomers, there were players who had learned their Fives at the majority of schools on the Fives circuit: Eton, Charterhouse, City of London, Highgate, Lancing, St.Olave's, Rossall, QEB, Westminster, Aldenham, Mill Hill, Shrewsbury, Berkhamsted, RGS High Wycombe, Wolverhampton GS, St.Bart's, Harrow, Rydal, Stowe and Ipswich.
For several years now, the U21 and U25 tournaments - as well as the Black Cup and the schools competition - have been dominated by the Highgate girls. This "golden generation" are now leaving school and making their presence felt in this tournament. With serial winners Eve Smith-Bingham (on a gap year), Amira Reimer (in Canada) and Phoebe Bracken (Durham but sadly unavailable this weekend) not in the draw, there was a chance for some of the supporting Cholmeleian cast to step into the spotlight and the strong Oxford contingent in the women's competition was led by OC freshers Marjolaine Briscoe and Carolina Valensise alongside second years Georgia Allen and Helen Pugh. With defending champion and former captain Rosie Parr also still at Oxford and the team captained by the effervescent Elena Zanchini, the Dark Blue women arrived full of confidence and duly dominated the group stages, producing three of the four semi-final pairs. The other last four spot was keenly contested with Cambridge 1 (Susanna Xu & captain Annie Calderbank), York (the Stowe/Berkhamsted combination of Francesca Knight & Bronte Capaldi) and the hybrid Cardiff/Nottingham Trent pairing of Francesca Turnbull and a second Old Stoic in Savannah Courtenay battling it out, with Turnbull and Courtenay showing the greatest courtcraft of the three pairs to make it through behind Oxford 2 (Parr & Valensise) in Group B.
The good run of the Cardiff/Nottingham Trent pair came to an abrupt end in the semi-finals at the hands of an impressive looking Oxford 1 (Briscoe & Allen), and Oxford 2 had too much speed and experience for Oxford 3 (Pugh & Zanchini) in the adjacent court, leaving the two top Oxford pairs to face off for the title. Hopes of a tight contest were soon dashed, however, as Oxford 1 dominated the final from start to finish, with Georgia Allen producing the power game to back up the all round excellence of the outstanding Marjolaine Briscoe, leaving Rosie Parr & Carolina Valensise unable to find a way of stopping their march to the title. A very close 3rd/4th play off was won by Turnbull & Courtenay, capping off an excellent day for the scratch pairing, York won Plate A with an exciting 12-10 win over Cambridge 1, Cambridge 2 (Emma Vinen & Pippa Ball) won the 7th/8th match against Royal Holloway/Oxford (Ellie Sherman and Lauren Rowley), leaving London's Old Salopians Sarah Jackman & Erin Leatherbarrow to win Plate B with a comfortable win after an up and down day for them against Oxford novices Nina Ludekens & Amelia Hepburn, who impressed with how well they coped all day in a strong and pretty experienced field.
The men's competition featured a healthy entry of 23 pairs, and with only two pairs qualifying for the knockout stages from each of the four groups, competition was fierce right from the off. Defending champions Oxford 1 (James Piggot & Tom Kirkby) came through Group A relatively unscathed, although they were pushed hard by the Oxford third string of Fergus Imrie (back at Oxford as a post grad) & Barnaby Harrison who were responding to the disappointment of a 12-11 loss at the hands of Surrey (Alex Abrahams & Josh Ravi), which was ultimately decisive in putting the Surrey pair through into the quarter-finals. Cambridge 1 (Riki Houlden & Ben Merrett) had more of a fight on their hands in Group B, recovering from 5-0 down to beat the Highgate/Ipswich Liverpool/Manchester pair of Aroop Bhattacharya & Toryn Whitehead, before coming from behind to snatch the group decider 12-11 from Imperial (Darshan Patel & Sahil Shah).
This year's favoured contenders to break the Oxbridge stranglehold on the competition were Durham freshers Charlie Nicholls (Berkhamsted) and Tom Breese (Shrewsbury). There were several other Durham players who weren't able to make the trip due to other commitments (Tom Gallagher, Hector Hardman, Cam Lyle, Sam Christopher, Adam Morris, Dom Robson, Chris Blackaby) but the pairing of Charlie & Tom was certainly enough to get some of the other top pairs watching with a view to gauging their early form. The ease with which they dominated Group C promised much, with Cambridge 2 (Nathan Turnbull & Jack Parham) the other pair to qualify ahead of the Rugby Fives stars and the Nottingham/Leicester combo of Chris Bird & Ben Hart. Oxford's strength in depth was shown by their second pair (the late-rising Arthur Wellesley & Harrovian fresher Oskar Denby) winning Group D, cruising past main threats LSE (Samson Yick & Dan Marshall) 12-3 in the key match. This group was also notable for the reappearance of the oldest student in town Abhishek Bhattacharya - playing with Durham's Jack Sissons, who he used to coach at Rydal - and Alex Tansey representing a third different institution in this competition in BPP, after previous appearances for Durham and UCL.
The quarter-finals were largely processional, with the "big three" of Oxford 1, Cambridge 1 and Durham far too strong for Cambridge 2, LSE 1 and Surrey respectively. Oxford 2 also served notice that it was actually a "big four" with a convincing 15-5 win over Imperial in the 4th seed v 5th seed clash.
Wellesley & Denby weren't finished there either, as they went on to seriously trouble Piggot & Kirkby in an all-Oxford semi-final. The senior pair won the first game 12-9 but it took all of Piggot's skill and Kirkby's fighting qualities to scrap their way through to the final with a 14-12 win in the second game. Semi-finals often turn out to be the best matches in these tournaments and the Cambridge v Durham clash on the next door court was undoubtedly the game of the day. Nicholls & Breese were untouchable in the first game, blowing Houlden & Merrett away 12-7, with Nicholls showing the mature game of a player with two years of Division 1 experience and success with Berkhamsted behind him and Breese demonstrating the class that made him the dominant player in the country at U16 level three years ago, before injury struck and hampered his senior career at Shrewsbury. Riki Houlden is a class player in his own right of course, a Kinnaird Cup semi-finalist last year and serial champion at University, U21 and U25 level. Fellow Old Westminster Merrett is also a fine player, as he demonstrated in last year's epic Varsity match first pair game, and he was able to provide solid support as Houlden produced a strong start to the second game which put Cambridge into a lead which they never relinquished, despite Durham pulling it back to 12-10 in the end. Breese's lack of recent court time compared to the other three was just beginning to show by this stage; interestingly his cut return remained majestic right through to the end but the precision in his volleying that was there at the start of the match was starting to drift away and too many balls were being hit out of court under the pressure being exerted by the Cambridge pair. The Durham pair continued to fight hard in the third game and were always in with a chance, but in the end the solidity of the Cambridge pair held sway and they booked their place in the final.
The final was recorded for posterity (CLICK HERE if you would like to watch it), which produced the memorable line from James Piggot after a rare mistake of "Oh for....video's sake" and was a high quality end to a high quality tournament. The cut returning was strong throughout and with Houlden and Kirkby on the same court the speed was always going to be high and the retrieving spectacular. The standout player - as he had been all day - was Piggot, who dominated the top step with his fast reflexes and elastic left-handed volleying, safe in the knowledge that should he miss, he had Kirkby backing him up, as solid and consistent as ever. Houlden and Merrett tried hard and played some fine Fives, but were never able to stem the flow of points and couldn't manage to produce any decisive runs of points themselves, leaving Piggot & Kirkby to retain the title with a convincing 12-5, 12-4 win.
My thanks go to the Jesters, for providing the sponsorship that allows us to refund travel expenses - a crucial component in putting together such a large field and therefore running such a successful tournament, to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the competition, to Stephen Thatcher for administrative assistance and willingness to be available for emergency substitutions and to all those who came to Eton - many travelling long distances - to take part.
Oxford 1 (G.Allen & M.Briscoe) beat Cardiff/Nottingham Trent (F.Turnbull & S.Courtenay) 12-0 12-4
Oxford 2 (R.Parr & C.Valensise) beat Oxford 3 (E.Zanchini & H.Pugh) 12-3 12-1
Oxford 1 beat Oxford 2 12-2 12-0
Cardiff/Nottingham Trent beat Oxford 3 12-9 10-12 12-7
York (F.Knight & B.Capaldi) beat Cambridge 1 (S.Xu & A.Calderbank) 12-10
Cambridge 2 (P.Ball & E.Vinen) beat Oxford/Royal Holloway (L.Rowley & E.Sherman) 12-7
London (S.Jackman & E.Leatherbarrow) beat Oxford 4 (N.Ludekens & A.Hepburn) 12-2
Oxford 1 (J.Piggot & T.Kirkby) beat Cambridge 2 (J.Parham & N.Turnbull) 15-0
Oxford 2 (A.Wellesley & O.Denby) beat Imperial (D.Patel & S. Shah) 15-5
Durham (C.Nicholls & T.Breese) beat Surrey (A.Abrahams & J.Ravi) 15-2
Cambridge 1 (R.Houlden & B.Merrett) beat LSE 1 (S.Yick & D.Marshall) 15-5
Oxford 1 beat Oxford 2 12-9 14-12
Cambridge 1 beat Durham 7-12 12-10 12-8
Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 1 12-5 12-4
Oxford 3 (F.Imrie & B.Harrison) beat Nottingham/Leicester (C.Bird & B.Hart) 12-1
UCL/Durham (Ab.Bhattacharya & J.Sissons) beat Oxford 4 (J.Greenhouse & H.Gibson-Leitao) 12-7
Edinburgh/Cambridge (D.Butler & E.Kay) beat LSE 2 (J.Navani & J.Willett) w/o
Liverpool/Manchester (Ar.Bhattacharya & T.Whitehead) beat Imperial/BPP (K.Lim & A.Tansey) 12-2
Oxford 3 beat UCL/Durham 12-6
Liverpool/Manchester beat Edinburgh/Cambridge 12-7
Oxford 3 beat Liverpool/Manchester 12-7
UCL/Durham beat Edinburgh/Cambridge 12-7
Nottingham/Leicester beat Oxford 4 12-7
Cambridge 3 (P.Wilkinson & V.Gudiwala) beat Royal Holloway/Brunel (O.Avery & E.Peppitt) 12-2
Royal Holloway (W.Seath & S.Lawrence) beat LSE 3 (R.Jaiswal & T. Dattadeen) 12-0
Oxford 5 (D.Dootson & R.Badiani) bye
Cambridge 4 (A.Shah & H.Kalaiya) beat Bath (B.Belsham & J.Ryde) 12-6
Royal Holloway beat Cambridge 3 12-7
Cambridge 4 beat Oxford 5 12-11
Cambridge 4 beat Royal Holloway 15-10
Cambridge 3 beat Oxford 5 12-8
Bath beat Royal Holloway/Brunel 12-3