Varsity Blues for Cambridge

(by Andy Bell)

The long-awaited cross-country showdown between Oxford and Cambridge took place last Saturday, 4th December, with Thames Hare & Hounds hosting the Blues Varsity Match on Wimbledon Common. Completing this year's inter-Varsity series (which had been tied at 3-3 after the previous weekend's 2nd - 5th team contests), the Blues Match was always going to be a passionate affair, though perhaps not in the way our Light Blue side had intended.

The day kicked off with a tasty appetiser in the form of the "old Boys' Race", which was populated by many boys, both young and old, and a number of ladyfolk too. This year the participants were in for a bit of a treat, as the infamous Blues water jump was included as an 'optional extra' on their course. Retaining his Old Gits title from last year, Oxford's Nick Talbot was first across the line, with Julia Bleasdale (Cambridge) taking the female honours. It was noted that Olly Mytton, a faithful Oxford athlete until last year, had defected to the Good Guys for the afternoon... Well played, Olly!

Once the spectators had finished hogging the Common, it was time for the main event: twelve ferocious lasses were summoned to the start line and released out into the wild, gnashing at each other in fiery determination as the first instalment of Blues action, the Ladies' Race, got underway.

When the Cambridge Ladies set off, they must have suspected they were in for a rough ride. With the loss of several elite athletes last year (including Julia Bleasdale, the current course record-holder) their team retained only one person who had raced in the fixture before, namely ex-Captain Claire Willer... and, though undefeated in every major competition this term, Claire was caught out by the uneven terrain during Saturday's race. Running with the leaders, she twisted her ankle badly and was forced to give up the chase, dropping out part-way round the course.

From then on in defeat looked somewhat inevitable, in spite of valiant performances by Emma Pooley and Sophie Wood, who finished 5th and 6th respectively and were each awarded full Blues for their efforts. Wincing with pain, Alice Tozer* overcame some serious shin splint issues to battle home in 8th place, and can truly be proud of her first Blues team run. A half Blue and some hearty 'conversation' with a special friend (see "AOTW with the best mating dance", below) awaited her that evening.

Captain Lucy Cundliffe, recovering from a summer of injury problems and some unfortunate encounters with low-flying branches, also produced a solid debut race, followed by fresher Claire Day. Claire deserves special mention for stepping in at extremely short notice on the Day (indeed, she discovered her glorious fate at 1am that morning, after Henrietta Freeman was struck down by illness and rendered unable to compete). And despite some rather disturbed pre-match banter with Jacob "Am I socially self-destructing on this bus?" Eisler, she ran an impressive, focused race. Well done, girls - you did us proud! The Oxford team was just too strong and too experienced, and there can be no shame in losing to such talented opponents.

In the Men's Race things were a lot closer, and at stages it looked as if the result could swing either way. Oxford seized the reins of the competition by dominating at the top end of the field, and in the end they managed to secure positions one, two and three (with legendary running machine Fraser Thompson the individual victor). However, the Light Blues' depth of talent was not to be underestimated, as they brought home seven athletes in the next eight places.

Personally speaking, Captain Ben Hope's performance was the most inspiring piece of running I've witnessed in a long time. He went off hard, with a slightly crazed look in his eye, and seemed determined to take the battle to Oxford right from the start. Straining to stay with Oxonians Blackledge and Moreau, the guy's passion for his sport and his club echoed with every furious footfall, and his 4th-place finish did not do justice to the dedication and resolve with which he attacked the race. As the Oxford camp acknowledge, "the two Captain Bens (Moreau from Oxford and Hope from Tabland) had a bitchin' battle of a race!". It was a privilege to watch.

New Zealand international Rowan Hooper flew home in 6th place for the Light Blues, just behind freshman Paolo Natali (5th), whose individual effort in the match was quite frankly astounding. Having missed a month's worth of training due to injury, Paolo was not on top form going into the contest... but he struggled determinedly to stay on Rowan's shoulder all the way round the course, the agony etched on his contorted face. At one point he literally started screaming with pain... isn't cross-country fun?!!

Paolo, Rowan and Ben all obtained full Blues for their gritty displays of excellence, along with Richard Ward (8th), Matt Robinson (9th) and Ed Brady (10th). Mr. Ward suffered a bit of a slow start, apparently because he was "feeling ****", but then turned up the juice for an electrifying cross-country conquest in the latter half of the race. Matt Robinson is quite simply an animal; training with wolves, he has risen from the 3rds to the first team in one year, and his performance on the day can be seen as a testament to the hard work and commitment he has shown over the past twelve months.

Ed Brady: despite Wardy's comments ("AOTW based purely on looks", below), I firmly believe that Ed is the hottest hunk of a man to grace the Blues team in quite some time... And not only that, he can't half move too!! After a friendly bit of argy-bargy with Dark Blue Luke Walton (who apparently told him to "**** off!" after the fifth tripping attempt) Ed went on to produce a strong, reliable run, confirming his status as an established Blue.

Crossing the line just fractions of a second behind him, Will George completed the central Cambridge pack, earning himself a half Blue with the 11th-position finish. Meanwhile, fellow fresher Owain Bristow dug deep after an uncertain start to claw back two places, finishing comfortably ahead of Oxford's James Hogan and Martin Bishop**. A half Blue spiralled his way in the evening as well.

Such tremendous packing from the Cambridge lads certainly lit a spark of possibility in the minds of their many supporters, but when push came to shove Oxford clinched it by just four points, Tom Douglas having managed to split the Cambridge core with his 7th-position finish. Interestingly enough, this puts the all-time match scores equal at 57 apiece. Tantalising...

Though the glory of the day was tinted Dark Blue, few Cambridge folk would contest the fact that the Varsity Match this year was an extremely worthwhile and rewarding experience, both for the competitors themselves and the hordes of cheering supporters who accompanied them. Many thanks to Thames Hare & Hounds for all their hard work in organising the fixture, and the post-race frivolities, year after year.

Oh, and about those post-race frivolities...

I could go on for hours about the Ben & Alice thing, about the Cambridge beer race victory (Olly Mytton!! Olly Olly Olly Mytton!!), about Owain's audacious chair-dancing episode, about my embarassing corkscrew incident with Matt Sims, or those high heels, about Ben Moreau's homosexual encounter, about Si Rutherford's unfortunate overnight stay in London, or Alexia Knight's unfortunate not-overnight-stay in Robinson... the list goes on and on.

Suffice it to say that we all had a jolly time - even, yes even as gracious losers - and it was a night not to be forgotten. Oh, and Claire Day: apparently you're quite popular with the Alverstones.

To sum up, a little something from Richard "Do you think I can fit in that luggage rack?" Ward...

"I was thinking about the animal of the week nomination and thought that it's a pretty hard thing to pick as there are so many reasons why people could get it, so I've broken it down into various separate categories, all based on efforts on Saturday. So:

Dish Nish Clish."

Cambridge University Hare & Hounds, sponsored by Sweatshop (Next Generation Club, Coldhams Lane Business Park, Cambridge; tel. 01223 415345).

*Not to be confused with "Tizer".

**Apparently the poor guy actually TORE a stomach muscle in the midst of the contest. Ouch.