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RDH MA (Cantab)

Oxford University graced Russia for their opening games of the season, playing Moscow’s top club, Slava, on 15th September before heading for Kazan for the weekend. It was an honour to watch quality rugby (and this from a regular Dragons member) played on the best ‘gazon’ in town, in front of a large and lively crowd.

For Oxford, everything is preparation for the annual showdown against Cambridge on 9 December, at Twickenham and on TV screens worldwide. Dark against Light (Blue), high church versus low church, the city of dreaming spires pitted against that of perspiring dreams, establishment versus free thinkers. An 800-year (precisely) rivalry honoured on the pitch.

This year’s Oxford are a new and fresh side, with a majority of undergraduates, and a minority of ‘Blues’, veteran warriors of previous contests. Coach Murray Henderson, a Christchurch Kiwi hewn from something that makes Karelian granite look pale and soft, explains: “We have a long season together building our team skills, and matching ourselves against many of the best teams in England. What the boys need first is a dose of exposure to men’s physicality. That’s why we came to Russia.”

They got it. Slava boast several players in the Russian national team, notably their no.8 and the centres, with the hooker also marking his card impressively. Russia have qualified for next year’s Rugby World Cup, in Murray’s home country, and they play their rugby hard. Slava’s forwards gave the young and svelte Oxford front row a searching examination, and the Dark Blue pack were often in reverse. In late season, Slava’s backs had some impressive off-loading, dummy-running and scissors skills, and made themselves space at pace. Oxford held up impressively, and the sides swapped scores until Slava’s power overcame the guests’ fitness and imagination, 29-19. The referee added a well-rounded presence. The result pleased everyone, as Slava’s triumph against a rugby major was a matter for great team pride, and Oxford gained great experience.

The knowledgeable crowd were in fine voice, and rugbylovers, meaning both sexes, all ages, players, exes and wannabees, showed their appreciation. The guests were buoyed by a raucous (but terribly well-spoken, of course) bevy of fans in the stands, blue-blooded Brits and Muscovites standing shoulder-pad to shoulder-pad.

In proper rugby tradition, the teams feasted together, before the guests were treated to a feast of Moscow’s hospitality by night. The team and their backroom staff were spirited, engaging, articulate and vibrant. I hope they win every game this autumn. Except the last one, of course.

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