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Varsity Match 2020: Dark Blue Dominance Continues

09/03/20: Oxford's recent run of Varsity Match dominance continued at Eton on Saturday as they won all four matches against rivals Cambridge, losing only two of the twelve pairs contested.

The last few years at Oxford have been something of a "Golden Age" for the men's team as a large group of talented players have passed through the University at the same time as Cambridge's pool of experienced Fives players has dwindled, leaving them to rely on new and more resourceful methods of recruitment and training, rather than just whistling up another Eton or Harrow first pair to join the ranks. There are still enough of that generation left at Oxford for them to have brought a formidable team to Saturday's match, but the first signs of change were there as they struggled to fill all of the places in the lower pairs for the first time in a while. The addition to the Oxford ranks of Old Westminster Hugo Young - winner of the U21, U25, Universities, Mixed Universities and Midlands titles this year - and the departure from the Cambridge team after six years of Kinnaird finalist Riki Houlden also meant that this year's result was one-sided but the balance of power in the Varsity match never stays in one place for too long and it is clear that the Oxford team are soon going to have to embrace some of the ideas that Cambridge have already adopted if they want to maintain their stranglehold on the match for too much longer.

With Houlden no longer lurking in the Light Blue ranks, Young was able to dominate the first pair match and he was well supported by former secretary Barnaby Harrison, who finally earned a well-deserved half-blue in his fourth year at Oxford. They comfortably beat Cambridge captain Viral Gudiwala and Etonian Arthur Clover for the loss of just six points, two more than were conceded by Oxford captain Oskar Denby and fellow Harrovian Qassi Gaba at second pair, who made short work of Nick Choustikov and Henry Lyle. A third Harrovian - Andrew Taylor - combined with Cholmeleian Josh Gordon to complete the whitewash at third pair with an equally convincing win over Rupert Swallow & Harshal Kalaiya (a second representative from QE Barnet in the Cambridge top six). 

The second team match was rather closer, a sign that Oxford's strength in depth this year was not quite what it was in 2019 and 2018. Jivan Navani & Dion Huang put up some resistance at first pair, losing 6,8 and 6 to Tuppy Morrisey & Edwin Gosnell. Oxford also won the bottom pair, with Salopian Dominic Dootson & Lancing's Henry Steele cruising past Cambridge novices Alex Butcher & Aaron Limonard. The day's biggest anomaly was at second pair, where Cambridge fielded 2017 schools' champion Kosi Nwuba and former half-blue Jack Capstick-Dale, a pair who would probably have gone in as favourites against the Light Blue first pair, but who weren't selected in the top six as neither has been on a Fives court all year, due to other sporting and academic commitments. Nwuba in particular - while inevitably a bit rusty - showed his class and it is very much to be hoped that he can be persuaded to spend a little more time on the Fives courts next year as well as on the football pitch. The unlucky Oxford fifth pair were Harrovian Aria Shirazi (a fourth Harrovian in the Oxford ranks) and Etonian Mayowa Ayanbadejo, who were on the receiving end of the kind of treatment being dished out by their Oxford teammates on the surrounding courts.

The Oxford teams of recent years are a hard act to follow and Oskar Denby and his team are to be congratulated on a fine performance and a convincing win. There should also be praise for the Cambridge captain Viral Gudiwala and his team as well, however, who have recruited well, practised hard, entered strong numbers into tournaments and produced significant improvement in their players, many of whom had played little or no Fives before coming to Cambridge.

The women's match has also gone in Oxford's favour more often than not in recent years and the same was true this time around as Oxford won the first team match 2-1 and the second team 3-0. This was overall a much closer contest than the men's match, and a great example of the standard that can be achieved in a short space of time by players new to the game, with only seven of the players involved (four from Oxford and three from Cambridge) having played the game at school.

Mirroring the men's match, Oxford benefitted from the presence of a serial trophy winner at the top of the order, captain Marjolaine Briscoe winning at first pair for the third year in a row. Her partner this year was Berkhamstedian fresher Freya Butler and they combined impressively, dominating from start to finish against the very handy Cambridge pair of Salopian Ursule Taujanskaite & captain Clara Calderbank. The quality of Marjolaine's play and the presence in the team of Freya, meant that Oxford were able to field another Cholmeleian - former U21 champion Carolina Valensise - at second pair alongside Amelia Hepburn. They were up against the Olavian first year pairing of Jessye Tu & Sophie Lumsdon, who recovered well from losing the first game 12-9 to hit back and snatch the second 13-12. The crowd were beginning to settle in for a long, tight match but Carolina had other ideas, seizing control of things at the start of the third and not letting go, volleying strongly, returning well and bossing the game, with Amelia providing excellent support. Jessye & Sophie were unable to respond and the Oxford pair raced through the third and fourth games to clinch the win that gave Oxford overall victory. 

The third pair game was a cracker and easily the most exciting match of the day. The only thing missing was the edge that would have been there had the overall match situation been level rather than already 2-0 to Oxford but as a contest it was no less thrilling for that. This was a great advertisement for what women's fives can be like: four players who have all learned their fives at University (and in the case of two of them who have only been playing for one year) playing to an extremely high level, with great shotmaking, exciting rallies and any number of momentum shifts. Sze Lynn Yuen & Annalise Whitehead for Cambridge struck first with a 12-8 win before Annie Calderbank (herself a former Cambridge captain and sister of Clara) & the ambidextrous Alix Quersonnier hit back to win the second easily to 2. Game on. The third was nip and tuck all the way, with Annalise's cutting becoming increasingly hard to return and the Oxford pair having to fight hard to level at 11-11 and then 13-13 before Cambridge struck the decisive blow to take a 2-1 lead. Again, though, momentum shifted in the next game as Annie found her cut returning rhythm to lead the Oxford pair to a 12-6 win and into a fifth. Back to Cambridge swung the needle, though, as Annalise's cutting, volleying and athleticism, with solid support from Sze Lynn, took them to the brink of victory at 11-5. With a large crowd watching, though, Cambridge suddenly stalled. Annie & Alix produced a masterclass in gameball cutting, finding the bottom of the buttress with unerring accuracy and regularity. Slowly the scoreline narrowed, but Oxford could not quite find the one hand of three or four points that would have drawn them level in a hurry and eventually an Oxford cut hit the ledge and sat up for a winning Cambridge volley to end a terrific match.

The second team match finished 3-0 to Oxford, who were lucky enough to have two former half-blues in the shape of Nina Ludekens & Laura Stokes return to the team in the later stages of the season to provide a level of knowhow that was a bit too much for their talented but more inexperienced Cambridge opponents. Nina & Ines Barrowcliff produced a near flawless performance to win first pair against Becky Diston & Emily Marr and Laura & Georgia Watson produced a terrific fourth game to win 3-1 having lost the third to the rapidly improving Alicia Murphy & Molly Woods (hockey and football blues respectively). Oxford also had the greater experience at third pair as Old Westminster Katie Birnie repeated her 2019 trick of guiding an Oxford newcomer - Jessica Howie this time - to victory over a pair of Cambridge novices, Lucy Carson & Claire Lloyd-Davies.

The match itself was splendidly bookended by a terrific morning alumni match, which filled twelve courts and some mixed games between the two teams to provide light relief and entertainment before the evening dinner, generously hosted by Eton and sponsored again this year by Pol Roger.




Ladies’ Match: Oxford won 2-1

1. C.Calderbank (Wycombe Abbey & Robinson) & U.Taujanskaite (Shrewsbury & Selwyn) lost to M.Briscoe (Highgate & University) & F.Butler (Berkhamsted & Exeter) 0-3 (3-12, 3-12, 3-12)

2. J.Tu (St.Olave’s & Magdalene) & S.Lumsdon (St.Olave’s & Pembroke) lost to C.Valensise (Highgate & Pembroke) & A.Hepburn (Bennett Memorial Diocesan & Worcester) 1-3 (9-12, 13-12, 3-12, 1-12)

3. A.Whitehead (The Abbey School, Reading & Robinson) & S-L Yuen (Wycombe Abbey & Girton) beat A.Calderbank (Wycombe Abbey & Oriel) & A.Quersonnier (Saint Jean de Passy & Hertford) 3-2 (12-8, 2-12, 14-13, 6-12, 12-9)

Ladies’ Second Team Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. E.Marr (Cardiff High School & Christ’s) & B.Diston (Nonsuch High School for Girls & Robinson) lost to I.Barrowcliff (Magdalen College School & Christ Church) & N.Ludekens (Hills Road Sixth Form & St.Catherine’s) 0-3 (3-12, 1-12, 5-12)

2. A.Murphy (Henrietta Barnett School & St.Catharine’s) & M.Woods (Aylesbury High School & Corpus Christi) lost to L.Stokes (Clifton College & University) & G.Watson (Wymondham College & Christ Church) 1-3 (2-12, 7-12, 13-11, 5-12)

3. L.Carson (Godolphin and Latymer & St.John’s) & C.Lloyd-Davies (St.Catherine’s School & King’s) lost to K.Birnie (Westminster & Exeter) & J.Howie (Runshaw College & Exeter) 0-3 (2-12, 1-12, 1-12)


Men’s Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. V.Gudiwala (QE Barnet & St.John’s) & A.Clover (Eton & Girton) lost to H.Young (Westminster & St.Hilda’s) & B.Harrison (Eton & Somerville) 0-3 (2-12, 2-12, 2-12)

2. N.Choustikov (City of London & Fitzwilliam) & H.Lyle (Lancing & Pembroke) lost to O.Denby (Harrow & Hertford) & Q.Gaba (Harrow & Queen’s) 0-3 (0-12, 3-12, 1-12)

3. R.Swallow (Eton & Hughes Hall) & H.Kalaiya (QE Barnet & Clare) lost to A.Taylor (Harrow & Magdalen) & J.Gordon (Highgate & Keble) 0-3 (3-12, 4-12, 1-12)

Men’s Second Team Match (Penguins vs Peppers): Oxford won 2-1

1. D.Huang (Westminster & Pembroke) & J.Navani (City of London & Hughes Hall) lost to E.Gosnell (City of London & Lady Margaret Hall) & T.Morrissey (Eton & Christ Church) 0-3 (6-12, 8-12, 6-12)

2. J.Capstick-Dale (Eton & Queens’) & K.Nwuba (St.Olave’s & Homerton) beat A.Shirazi (Harrow & Pembroke) & M.Ayanbadejo (Eton & Pembroke) 3-0 (12-3, 12-5, 12-3)

3. A.Butcher (Winchester & St.John’s) & A.Limonard (Peter Symonds & St.John’s) lost to D.Dootson (Shrewsbury & Balliol) & H.Steele (Lancing & Pembroke) 0-3 (2-12, 2-12, 4-12)

Alumni Match

Riki Houlden & Manuel de Souza Girao (C) beat Rex Worth & Noah Caplin (O) 3-1 (12-9, 8-12, 12-5, 13-10)

Richard Tyler & Tom Fletcher (C) beat Tom Kirkby & Will Ponsonby (O) 3-0 (12-6, 12-6, 12-1)

Paul Thompson & Nick Shaw (C) beat Ollie Sale & Sacha Mehta (O) 3-0 (12-8, 12-1, 12-4)

Akhil Shah & Ben Merrett (C) beat Sanjaya Ranasinghe & Will Howard (O) 2-1 (13-10, 5-12, 15-13)

Jonathan Asquith & Robert Thorogood (C) beat Martin Fiennes & Peter Frankopan (O) 2-1 (6-12, 12-4, 12-4)

Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley (C) beat Jacob Greenhouse & Sam Packer (O) 3-0 (12-10, 12-8, 12-7)

Tim Thurnham & Mark Gwynne (C) beat Stephen Thatcher & Ewan Thompson (O) 2-1 (12-9, 7-12, 14-13)

Al Taylor & Elana Osen (C) lost to Matt Chinery & Harriet Asquith (O) 1-3 (10-13, 13-12, 13-14, 11-14)

Ralph Morgan & Simon Woolfries (C) beat Joss Knight (C/O) & Sudhir Balaji (C) 12-4

Ralph Morgan (C) & Joss Knight (C/O) lost to Will Thomas & Sudhir Balaji (C) 0-2 (10-12, 14-15)

Phil Wilkinson & Nic Walker (C) beat Nigel Cox & Stefan Nowinski (O) 2-1 (12-10, 7-12, 15-14)

Rachel Wood & Lucy Rands (O) beat Rosie Parr & Hannah Pritchard (O) 2-0 (12-4, 12-8)

Will Thomas & Simon Woolfries (C) beat Rachel Wood & Lucy Rands (O) 12-5

Katherine Morris (C) & Colette Rocheteau (O) beat Lauren Rowley & Izzy Moriarty Whyte (O) 2-1 (12-10, 12-9, 9-12)


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