Mixed Fortunes at VFEAR

by Andy Bell

The second of this year's Varsity athletics fixtures took place on Sunday, as CUAC travelled to Iffley Road stadium in Oxford for the annual Varsity Field Events & Relays match (VFEAR). The competition encompasses a full complement of field events (in which each team is awarded an aggregate score, summing all the distances/heights attained by the individual athletes) and an extended set of track relays, covering distances from 100m all the way up to 1600m and including several hurdle disciplines.

In the Men's competition Oxford were indisputably dominant, winning 6 of the 7 relays and 6 out of 8 field events. CUAC President Dan Bray was sorely missed in the sprint & hurdle relays, which fell to the Dark Side by varying margins in spite of some sterling individual efforts. Fresher Ben Carne was unleashed to sparkling effect in both the 4x110mH and 4x200mH, as well as the flat sprint relays, while GB International Steve Green repeatedly found himself under pressure on the anchor leg, with intimidating deficits to recover in front of an expectant crowd. Suspending their disbelief (and clinging hopefully to memories of the spectacular 4x400m finale in last year's summer Varsity Match), the light blue masses would mutter to themselves: "Surely he can do it... he's 40m behind in a 200m leg, but he can catch up... surely..." And alas, they were mistaken.

The men's saving grace on track came with the middle distances, where they toppled a superbly strong Oxon quartet in the 4x1500m. Fraser Thompson, Ben Moreau and Jon Blackledge (the 3 top finishers from December's Varsity cross-country match) toed the line for Oxford, alongside fellow Blue Martin Bishop. Cambridge presented a rather weaker-looking team, comprising freshers Will George, Richard Ward and Matt Armstrong, plus 3rd year Ed Brady. Apparently Mr. Moreau had been bragging the previous day about the inevitability of Cambridge defeat, even boasting that he could go out on the lash that night and still ensure an Oxford win. Well, I'm afraid he was about to experience some serious egg-on-face.

Will George led off the light blue side, running a solid 4:10.7 and establishing a good lead over Bishop. He switched the baton with Ed Brady, who ran with the uncomfortable sound of footfalls behind him to hold a slightly diminished lead from Moreau, who handed over - most unfortunately - to the man we love to hate, the inter-Varsity distance Goliath that is Fraser Thompson. This Oxon beast quickly churned up the track to overhaul Matt Armstrong and dip under 4 minutes for the 1500m, but Armstrong kept his head and - already tired from an outstanding effort in the 4x800m relay - produced Cambridge's fastest split so far (4:10.1)... and then all eyes fell to Richard Ward, the all-important munchklin anchorman who set off behind Blackledge with an 8 second gap to close. Whipping out some crazily erratic lap times (his first three 400m splits were 60, 67, 63 seconds respectively!), Ward had made up little ground on his prey after 1000m. But then, as he rounded the penultimate bend and swung into the back straight, a noticeable shift in gear occurred and the man roared forward, drawing level with Blackledge in less than 200m. Gritting his teeth to hold off a ferocious retaliatory surge on the home straight, Ward crossed the line just 0.2 seconds clear in first place. The crowds went wild and Wardy's sex symbol status was confirmed.

The Men's 800m also started out on a promising note, as Matt Armstrong pulled away from the Dark Blue evil of David Bruce to give Stuart Forbes a 3-second lead on the second leg. Forbes continued to increase the gap over his first lap, but hit a cataclysmic wall at 600m and was reeled back in by Moreau. Still afflicted by illness from the previous week, the Cambridge athlete struggled home in 2:09.4, 10 seconds adrift of his expected finishing time. Richard Ward and Andy Owen fought to pick up the pieces on laps three and four, but were unable to wrestle the final victory away from Oxford. Had Forbes been free from his plight, a more favourable outcome would have been a stark possibility.

Cambridge field victories included the Long Jump and Triple Jump, a small but defiant light blue stain on the pennant of Oxon glory. David Bulley deserves special mention for competing in the hammer (quite respectably) with a broken arm... Though it prevented him from taking part in the Shot Put, Bulley was hard (or stupid) enough to employ his injured limb again at the post-match dinner, where he met an arm-wrestling challenge from one shady Oxford foe. Unsurprisingly he lost, conceding that it "hurt a bit". Mike Collins, also complaining of appendage ailments, threw himself fully into the mix by using his decathlete powers to take on an enormous swathe of events: High Jump, Pole Vault, Triple Jump, Shot Put, Discus, Hammer, Javelin (as well as the 4x400m B-string relay, where he just beat ex-CUAC President Rich Wheater - now running for Achilles, a guest team in the contest - to the line on leg number 4).

The ladies' competition saw abundant success for Cambridge, with a 3-3 tie on the track and a 5-3 field event victory. Captain Grace Clements led by example, personally contesting 12 of the 14 events and spurring home victorious teams in the 4x100m, 4x200m and 4x200m hurdles. The women met their match on track as the distances increased, with Oxford drawing on a tremendously talented pool of cross-country runners to seize control of the 4x400m, 3x800m, and Distance Medley (600m, 1600m, 1200m, 800m) relays. Central to their attack was Elizabeth Braithwaite, who had won gold in the BUSA Indoor 800m final just one week earlier. She anchored both the 4x400m and 3x800m, even fighting off fresher legend Phyllis Agbo to claim a win in the former event.

Agbo was not to be outdone, however, and demonstrated her athletic versatility by spearheading a remarkable string of match records in the ladies field events. Taking individual victory (and records) in the Shot Put AND Javelin, with throws of 11.06m and 36.56m respectively, she was partnered by Grace Clements and Clare Palmer to establish both light blue wins and aggregate match records in each event. Cambridge's Rachel Tomlinson catapulted her way to a record height of 2.80m in the pole vault (again, leading home a team victory), whilst Hannah Hogben equalled the current match record of 38.20 for the Hammer, hoisting Oxford onto the top spot in this event. All in all, a fantastic display of athletic ability in a nail-biting contest for the ladies.

Though the results may have slipped from our fingers last Sunday, there were certainly plenty of positives to note. The Cambridge ladies are looking stronger than ever this year and will be hungry for victory when the main Varsity Match comes around on May 21st. The men have plenty of resources and manpower in reserve, especially since some of their biggest guns were immobilised by injury at the weekend (Dan Bray in the sprints, Ben Hope in the distance events and Simon Bulley in the throwing arena, to name but a few). Fuelled by the rage of defeat, they will not succumb easily to another Oxon pounding this summer.

Many thanks to all those who helped organise VFEAR this year - it was a fascinating experience with many novelties which normal athletics fixtures simply don't offer... the old-skool Achilles running kit was a spectacle in itself, and I'd never before witnessed a 'shuttle' hurdles relay (most exciting!).