"Embrace It, It's a New Era" - Oxford v Cambridge University Varsity Welcomes Next Chapter for Women's Match - Ruck

“Embrace It, It’s a New Era” – Oxford v Cambridge University Varsity Welcomes Next Chapter for Women’s Match

The most highly anticipated fixtures in the University rugby calendar take place this weekend, as the famous Varsity Matches between Oxford and Cambridge will take centre stage at a new venue. Collectively known as ‘Oxbridge’, the rich history of the Varsity is known all too well by both universities, with the next chapter set to be written at Saracens’ StoneX Stadium.

The first ever encounter between Oxford and Cambridge is dated back to 1872, when Queen Victoria sat on the throne and the only international test match to have ever taken place, was between England and Scotland the previous year. Rugby Union was in its infancy, with two of England’s leading academic institutions taking the lead in popularising the sport amongst scholars and increasing rugby’s reach overseas.

For 116 years, only the best school-boys would compete in the Twickenham-hosted Varsity match, before the women burst onto the scene for their first fixture in 1988. Cambridge Women won their inaugural battle, before Oxford dominated the fixture with 13 consecutive wins, as the rivalry broke into the new Millennium. The Women’s Varsity rivalry really emerged in the 2000s, as the sides traded wins throughout the past two decades, and saw their first draw in 2022.

Since 2000, Oxford Women have nine victories (21 total wins), whilst Cambridge have won the fixture an additional 12 times (13 total wins). The current holders of the Varsity trophy are Oxford, who won the final fixture to be held at Twickenham Stadium, for the foreseeable future. A new era is set to commence this Sunday, with the StoneX Stadium ushering in the next generation of budding scholars to this iconic battle from rugby’s amateur era.

Oxford University Women’s Head Coach Ricky Khan took the reins in last season’s win, and has golden memories of orchestrating the final victory at ‘HQ’. The former Wasps Academy, London Scottish and Chinnor coach fondly recalled last season’s triumph, but recognised how there is a new challenge ahead in a rejuvenated Cambridge side. Speaking exclusively to Ruck, Khan said;

“So, I think from my point of view, I’m glad that I got to win at Twickenham, selfishly, because I wanted to coach there, and wanted to win there and now I’ve done that with Oxford University. So I’ve done it with a massive club that’s steeped in history. I’ve done it with a Women’s team and I wanted to transition into the women’s game, to go into that part of rugby and see what I could achieve in the women’s game, and I’ve got to do it Twickenham. So you know, to stand on the pitch with a trophy at Twickenham was a great feeling.”

Image Credit – Ricky Khan

“So (last season) we won all three (against Cambridge). So we won both league matches, and we won the Varsity. The way we approach it, we look at it like it’s a bit of a three game series, in a way for us.

“Us and Cambridge have ended up in the same division. Last year, we had a really successful league campaign and I don’t think Oxford had beaten Cambridge significantly, or had done the double on them in the league (before that). We managed to do that, which set us up really nice for the Varsity. We were losing the Varsity at halftime and managed to then get a second half performance to then win it, so we won all three games.

“It was a really great season for us last year. Cambridge have made a few changes this year where they’ve brought in a new coach, I think they had a bit of a transition last year with coaching. They have brought in a dedicated coach, a guy called Will (Cotterill) he’s based at Shelford, and was Director of Rugby or Head Coach there for the men’s program.

“He’s come in and he’s made some changes, and I think he has changed some things culturally there. So they beat us 28-26 at their place, in a really good fixture where we came back at them after taking a bit of a hiding in the first half. We managed to get back at them and nearly take the game. And then our place we managed to draw, 19-19 I think it was.

“We’re in a position where we’ve called it a bit of a three game series, because we have to play them three times. So obviously, we’ve got to win this one, the Varsity, to tie up the series so we both would have won one and drawn one. It’s exciting but it’s going to be tough.

Oxford Women’s captain Sophie Shams echoed the thoughts of her coach, in how she has been impressed by Cambridge’s improvement this season. Shams expects a tough battle when the two universities meet in North London, but is hopeful for the win as her side has continued to improve throughout their campaign.

“I don’t want to say redemption, but the first one we lost and the next one we drew, so if you look at the pattern, hopefully we should win this next one. I mean, Cambridge are extremely competitive this year, and they will bring it, I just hope that we bring it more so that we get that W.

“They (Cambridge) are so well drilled, they do the simple things well, and when I say well, I mean like extremely well, they have it nailed down. They are so well organised and switched on this year, I don’t know if that’s due to the fact that their captain is the same, or they’ve changed up a little bit of their coaching set-up, or the fact like us they’ve retained so many ‘blues’ (1st XV caps) from last year too. It’s definitely a lot harder and a little bit more stressed to get those wins, that we haven’t managed to get last year.”

Whilst the majority of the Oxford and Cambridge Women’s players will be taking to the artificial turf of the StoneX for the first times in their careers, Shams is more than familiar with the stadium. The centre spent a tenure of her early career with Saracens and well as Darlington Mowden Park, before she joined Trailfinders Women ahead of the 2023/24 PWR season. Speaking on her excitement to return to her former home, Shams said;

“I mean, having it at StoneX obviously, isn’t the same as Twickenham, but it’s still a really great stadium. If we can get the same numbers as we got last year at the StoneX, the atmosphere will be completely different and it’s quite good that StoneX will be able to provide that for us. The pitch itself is quite good in that respect.”

“I actually kind of prefer an AGP (artificial grass pitch), just because the ball bounces a little bit nicer. You feel a lot faster which is quite nice to me being a back and all.”

“It’ll just be electric, and your supporters will be a lot closer to the to the pitch. It will be a little bit more connected in a way.”

Having plied his trade as a coach throughout the Academy leagues, National One and RFU Championship, Ricky Khan skipped the Premiership stage before getting his taste of the bright lights of Twickenham. Now, Khan will have the opportunity to experience one of the top facilities in the English first division, yet expressed how the Varsity match would be just as hotly contested, even if it was played in the most unremarkable of locations.

“I imagine for some people that draw of going to Twickenham was a really huge thing. But that’s now not there, but it’s still a great stadium. Saracens, if you think of the players that are currently playing on both the men’s and women’s side, you got the players like the Owen Farrell’s and the Marlie Packers of the world, who were both top England internationals. We get to go on that turf that they’re playing on as well.

“So we’ve got to embrace it. It’s a new era of rugby, and a lot of the players would never have played in the stadium before. So we’re lucky that we do get to go and do it. I think we’ve got to celebrate that, it’s still a really great thing.

“I think Oxford and Cambridge, you could play that fixture on a cabbage patch and the rivalry and the ferocity of the match will still be up there. So we have that in our corner as well. But it doesn’t matter where you play that game, it’s the two universities who go hard at each other, and then there’s just no quarter held.”

Image Credit: Ricky Khan

Within the halls of Oxford University, there are few accomplishments that bring more prestige than achieving a ‘Blue’. This refers to representing the 1st XV in the Varsity Match against Cambridge, with skipper Shams eager to obtain her next ‘Blue’ at the helm of her side. Speaking on what the accolade means to the Oxford scholars, the Trailfinders flyer said;

“It’s like a rite of passage that not many people get to achieve here, and it’s incredibly special. I mean, it’s one of the most important, if not the most important Varsity competitions in Oxford. From the outside looking in, people either don’t know what it is, or are extremely aware of what the Varsity competition is. And the Rugby 1st XV Boy’s (match) comes out to be quite special (too).

“It’s very prestigious thing to have just in the University, you get a lot of kudos throughout and seeing what it means to players. For our squad announcement, it means so much to them and it’s incredibly special. So having control of that’s been quite scary almost, to try and control the fate of how people get that news in a way.”

As the captain alluded towards, Shams has worked tirelessly with Khan in whittling down the numbers for a match day squad of 23. Shams expressed how this was such a difficult task given the immense squad depth that the university has, with 1st, 2nd and 3rd teams set to play against Cambridge, yet only the 1st XV players can achieve the honoured Blue.

“I guess that’s never an easy thing to do. This season, we’ve had so many different players put their hand up and comeback from injuries, and it’s just new people starting (as well). So I think one of our coaches’ calculated that we have 62 different players, different women playing in the Varsity for the women’s side throughout the three clubs, which I think is quite impressive in itself. Just for the amount of people playing rugby for the women’s side.”

“So, I could only take 23 with me to the varsity match.” Khan added. “There’s some players that have sadly missed out who have played brilliantly for us all season, but for various reasons we can’t select them.”

Looking at two players who are front-running contenders to represent the first XV, Oxford’s Alex Wilkinson and Tolu Duckworth have been stand-out players this season. Sophie Shams first discussed Wilkinson, as the scrum half has recently progressed into the England U20 Women’s squad, following a series of impressive performances.

“I mean, Alex Wilkinson is an amazing nine to have on the pitch, she is as switched on as anything is, and I think that we connect up quite well. She’s been quite a good role model for others to be like, ‘oh, there are people that can play rugby, but also study as well’. And that’s almost quite rare to have here. She’s not afraid to speak up. But she also listens to what’s needed for the good of the team.”

Image Credit – Keble College – Alex Wilkinson (left) and Tolu Duckworth (right)

Duckworth is also an anomaly of the Oxford squad, as her meteoric rise since beginning rugby took her into the 1st XV in only her first season. Set to pack down the scrum at second row once again, Shams was full of praise for the lock who is eyeing up her second blue. The captain explained how players like Tolu have given Khan plenty to consider when it comes to selection.

“I think it creates almost some good headaches for selection. I mean, last year, we had one of our players Tolu, she started in October and ended up getting a Blue in March. I think that speaks volumes to the amount of natural athleticism that we have throughout Oxford. So this year, I really wanted to try and get as many players playing as possible just to see how quickly they get into it.

Image Credit – Keble College

“The fact that we have people joining even, like in the past two weeks, I think speaks volumes and in just trying to be that club that’s as welcoming and open to people regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of their gender and orientation. I mean, women’s rugby is quite good in that it’s there for everyone.

“So trying to create that environment and get people who are scared… I think one of the best things was, when I was talking to some of the players, one of them that I was talking to, she said; ‘Yeah, I think rugby fits me.’ And I was really happy with that, because that kind of spoke to me on the inside.

“Because she is a natural athlete and is incredibly talented, and then just trying to help her find a sport that suited her has been quite fulfilling for me as a captain, and trying to bring that to the club a little bit more.”