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Oxford Extend Varsity Match Winning Streak

03/03/24: Oxford continued their recent winning run in the Pol Roger Varsity Match at Harrow on Saturday, winning 12 of the 13 pairs played.

Cambridge have not won at first team level since 2016 for the men and 2015 for the women and were unable to break the sequence, with their only win coming in the third pair of the women's second team match. Unlike 2023, however, when one of the strongest Oxford teams in living memory won every match 3-0, this was a much more competitive contest, albeit one where the Dark Blues had the edge almost throughout.

With the Eton courts unavailable, Harrow was the venue for this year's match; a dank and wet morning - featuring an informal and highly enjoyable alumni match - thankfully gave way to a predominantly dry and sunny afternoon with all twelve courts in use and a good smattering of spectators enjoying the wide range of matches on offer.

Some of the big names from last year's Oxford men's team - including Hugo Young and Charles Plummer - had moved on but there was still plenty of quality and depth available to select from for captain Beau Swallow, with some good players missing out on a Half-Blue. Beau and Old Wulfrunian Ben Hart had a battle on their hands in the first game against the Cambridge first pair of Theo Seely (on his home courts) and Freddie Kottler and narrowly won it to 9; thereafter the Oxford pair found a different gear, cutting out the errors from the first game and racing through the next two for the loss of only one further point. The Cambridge second pair of Jamie Levinson and Max Krefting also had a tough assignment on their hands in the form of last year's school champion Genesis Nsenga and this year's University tournament winner Joel Robb. The Cambridge pair acquitted themselves well throughout but the result was never in doubt, with the Oxford pair always in control and winning in straight games. Possibly the best Cambridge performance of the day came from their third pair, captain Lewis Drummond and Isaac Gianfrancesco, both of whom have learnt their Fives while at Cambridge. They were up against Nick Choustikov, a former teammate of the Cambridge pair but now firmly ensconced in the Oxford ranks, and Old Westminster Hatam Barma, earning his Half-Blue in his final year after three consecutive winning appearances for the Peppers. The Oxford pair won the first game to 8 but Cambridge hit back, the Light Blues levelling at 1-1 with a 14-13 second game win. The pattern then repeated itself as Nick & Hatam won the third to 9 before the fourth again went to 13-13. This time, though, the winning point was won by Oxford and the Light Blue pair were denied the fifth game decider that their play perhaps deserved.

The second team Penguins v Peppers game stretched to four pairs this year, a pleasing sign of the recruitment strategies and strength in depth of the two clubs. Oxford held sway reasonably comfortably at fourth and fifth pair, the greater experience of Spencer Chapman & Aaditya Deshmukh and Dominic Mcloughlin & Hamish Bain too much for Olly Perry & Albie Gavshon and Luke Maxwell (a rare product of RGS High Wycombe in the Varsity ranks) & Stefan Tuchel, a talented newcomer this year. The Cambridge sixth pair of Jamie Lai & Tom Ford have improved hugely this year, helped by extra practice on the Magdalene court and regular tournament appearances and they deservedly won a game against former Oxford captain James Green & the enigmatic Cyril Schroeder before going down in four. The seventh pair had to wait for a court to become available and it was therefore inevitable that this would be the longest and closest match of the day; it also meant it attracted the biggest crowd and the players responded with a very fine match of a quality that frequently belied its lowly seventh pair status. Hopes of a sole Cambridge men's victory were high as Lasith Siriwardana & Alex Davies came from 0-2 down to win the third and lead in the fourth. It wasn't to be, however, as Alex Guilloteau & Milton Tai rallied in the nick of time to win the game 14-11 and complete the Dark Blue-wash.

The Cambridge women's team have had a hugely successful season, with a first Universities title since 2014 for Alex Davies & Lucy Bland and a first Mixed win since 2015 for Emilia Collinson (alongside Lewis Drummond). They faced a sterner test this time around, however, as none of Oxford's top three players had taken part in those competitions and the presence of Freya Butler, Lorenza Valensise and Annie Calderbank in the Oxford ranks made them strong favourites to win the women's first team match. Annie's first appearance in the Varsity Match was back in 2016 for Cambridge; in this, her ninth and final appearance she partnered Freya at first pair for Oxford against Alex & Emilia. The Cambridge pair put up a good showing, but Annie's experience and the class of national semi-finalist Freya meant that Oxford cruised to a comfortable win. There was a similar story at second pair as ex-Highgate player Lorenza Valensise controlled the match against the much less experienced Alex Davies & Alice Rothwell. She was partnered by the impressive Holly Culhane, proving that Cambridge didn't have the monopoly on first year novices winning Half-Blues and showing how it is possible to reach a very good standard in just two terms of playing. The third pair always looked likely to be closer as Cambridge captain Emma Spencer was joined by former captain Sze-Lynn Yuen against Alice Simmonds & Vita Love, with Cambridge this time starting the match with the much more experienced pair. The Oxford pair have worked hard this year, however, and took an early lead. Cambridge closed the gap but some excellent cutting allowed the Oxford pair the breathing space to hold on to the lead and win the first game. Vita & Alice visibly grew in confidence with the first game under their belts and began to return cut more consistently. Sze-Lynn was also improving having shed some of the early match rust from not having played much this year, but the Oxford pair always held the whip hand and finished in style with a 12-2 win in the third game.

The women's second team match often contains several players who are very new to the sport and this year was no exception. Only Jess Marais of the Cambridge sextet had played any significant amount of Fives before the start of this season, while five of the six Oxford team members only took the game up in January, the pre-Christmas part of the Oxford season disrupted by court refurbishments. Darcy Clarke from Oxford Brookes via Holyport was at fourth pair for Oxford and she was able control the fourth pair game, well supported by Eleonore Thiriet, their superior set piece too much for Anna Fitzpatrick & Anjali Mistry. Two more Christ Church freshers teamed up for Oxford at fifth pair, with Rachel McCormack & Jessie Gibson taking on former CUEFC secretary Jess Marais & Stella Watkins, who had played a little bit in her first year at Girton before waiting until her sixth year to come back to the game properly. This was one of those classic second team Varsity Match games where the players all improve noticeably as the game progresses; the Oxford pair always had their noses in front, however, with a little bit of extra accuracy and precision, and came through impressively in three close games. The Cambridge sixth pair featured - as is often the case - two talented sportswomen without much Fives experience. Catherine Gwynne-Evans & Alexa Fung were up against two more of Oxford's Christ Church fresher contingent but the strong and athletic Cambridge pair had too much power for Ellie Jordan & Reva Banthiya, growing in confidence as the match progressed to record the only Light Blue win of the day.

Despite the change of venue, the traditions of informal mixed matches and the sponsor's champagne were upheld, with the post match dinner held in a local restaurant this time around.

Our thanks go to Ian Hutchinson, Dale Vargas and everyone at Harrow for hosting the match, to Pol Roger for their continued support, to Theo Seely for organising the dinner and to all of the players and spectators for making it such a successful day.


Results (Cambridge names first)


Men’s Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. T Seely (Trinity) & F.Kottler (Trinity) lost to B.Hart (Kellogg) & B.Swallow (Somerville) 0-3 (9-12, 0-12, 1-12)

2. J.Levinson (Pembroke) & M.Krefting (Queens’) lost to G.Nsenga (Somerville) & J.Robb (Exeter) 0-3 (5-12, 4-12, 6-12)

3. L.Drummond (Magdalene) & I.Gianfrancesco (Magdalene) lost to N.Choustikov (Oriel) & H.Barma (Mansfield) 1-3 (8-12, 14-13, 9-12, 13-14)


Men’s Second Team Match (Penguins vs Peppers): Oxford won 4-0

1. O.Perry (Jesus) & A.Gavshon (Magdalene) lost to S.Chapman (Wycliffe Hall) & A.Deshmukh (Christ Church) 0-3 (0-12, 7-12, 6-12)

2. S.Tuchel (Wolfson) & L.Maxwell (Gonville & Caius) lost to D.Mcloughlin (Oxford Brookes) & H.Bain (St.Edmund Hall) 0-3 (9-12, 2-12, 8-12)

3. J.Lai (Magdalene) & T.Ford (Magdalene) lost to J.Green (Exeter) & C.Schroeder (St.Edmund Hall) 1-3 (8-12, 12-7, 4-12, 4-12)

4. A.Davies (Pembroke) & L.Siriwardana (St.John’s) lost to M.Tai (Balliol) & A.Guilloteau (Merton) 1-3 (5-12, 5-12, 12-8, 11-14)


Women’s Match: Oxford won 3-0

1. A.Davies (Magdalene) & E.Collinson (Girton) lost to F.Butler (Exeter) & A.Calderbank (Oriel) 0-3 (5-12, 3-12, 1-12)

2. L.Bland (Selwn) & A.Rothwell (Robinson) lost to H.Culhane (Christ Church) & L.Valensise (New) 0-3 (0-12, 5-12, 4-12)

3. E.Spencer (Magdalene) & S-L.Yuen (Girton) lost to A.Simmonds (Exeter) & V.Love (Green Templeton) 0-3 (9-12, 7-12, 2-12)


Women’s Second Team Match: Oxford won 2-1

1. A.Mistry (Homerton) & A.Fitzpatrick (Queens’) lost to D.Clarke (Oxford Brookes) & E.Thiriet (Christ Church) 0-3 (4-12, 1-12, 3-12)

2. S.Watkins (Girton) & J.Marais (Lucy Cavendish) lost to R.McCormack (Christ Church) & J.Gibson (Christ Church) 0-3 (8-12, 8-12, 7-12)

3. C.Gwynne-Evans (Magdalene) & A.Fung (Murray Edwards) beat R.Banthiya (Christ Church) & E.Jordan (Christ Church) 3-0 (12-6, 12-3, 12-1)


Alumni Match

Cambridge: B.Merrett, J.Black, V.Gudiwala, A.Shah, A.Knight, R.Thorogood, R.Morgan, J.Tu and N.Lilienthal

Oxford: N.Caplin, S.Packer, W.Howard, S.Nowinski, J.Greenhouse, G.Day


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