The oldest university rugby match in the world took place on Saturday between the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh at London Scottish RFC. The match is now in its third year as a big event and is growing in stature in the rugby calendar with big crowds turning out to support both teams at Richmond.
The game itself was a cracker! It quite literally had everything. Tries, a red card, excitement and great rugby from both teams, which put to shame the warm up game between London Scottish and Nottingham in the IPA Championship: nothing more than a scrum fest with both teams not trying to play any rugby.
The Scottish Varsity match, however, had some scintillating rugby from both teams, with a real blend of forward control and backline attack. The game kicked off with great intensity and Danny Clink opened the scoring with a well-struck penalty in the opening minutes.
The Saints lost their centre Alex Kennedy after he produced a huge tackle but injured himself in the process and had to leave the field. Whilst he was down Edinburgh scored a good breakaway try through their winger. The Saints responded quickly, however, with some good phase play and a great offload by flanker Ciaran Harris that set Clink away down the right and Sean Murchie dived in at the corner for the opening try.
The Saints were struggling at scrumtime but had the lineout as a position of strength from which to launch their attacks. With the Saints pressurising, Edinburgh continued to infringe and were constantly giving away penalties.
The play of both teams impressed the large crowd and the defensive play in particular evoked cheers from the stands. There were two more penalties from Danny Clink after Edinburgh infringed yet again, but these infringements lost them a man to the sin-bin, which forced the Saints into a strong lead. Edinburgh kicked over a penalty as half time approached to sneak closer.
Halftime score 14-8 to the University of St Andrews, very much in the ascendancy. Clear messages and calm heads at half time were in order at the thought of breaking Edinburgh’s dominance of the fixture over the past two years.
Edinburgh struggled to cope with the pressure placed on them by St Andrews and conceded more penalties meaning that, once again, they had a man in the sin bin early in the second half.
The offloading of the Saints for wards was causing the main problem for Edinburgh and great ball out of contact from George Hailstone and Bertie Ridley-Thomas had the team from the capital on the back foot.
A nasty incident then took centre stage when right in front of the packed stand of supporters, the Edinburgh second row spear tackled Sean Murchie and was shown a straight red card. Edinburgh’s ill-discipline was putting them out of the game and Saints knocked over another penalty to go 17- 8 up.
Moving into the last 15 minutes, the atmosphere got tense as Edinburgh frantically tried to get back into the game and an excellent set piece move allowed their centre to go through a gap in midfield to put the match on a knife edge with only two points between the two sides, 17-15. It was not to be however as for the last ten minutes the Saints camped on the Edinburgh line and scored a great try with an effective catch and drive from Lewis Stewart.
Danny Clink sealed a dramatic victory with the touchline conversion meaning Edinburgh would have had to score twice in the dying minutes to win.
As the final whistle went, jubilant scenes from the Saints players and supporters erupted, the Saints relieved that they had held their composure and nerve to win such a historic fixture.
Winning first XV captain Jeremy Gordon was ecstatic after the win: “I knew we could do it. We have had a great few weeks at the start of the season and have been building towards this match and the huge occasion. The lads were fantastic throughout and we really put so much pressure on Edinburgh that they couldn’t handle. I’m so happy and immensely proud.”
Director of rugby David Ross said, “That was a huge performance from the squad and a thoroughly deserved victory. Edinburgh struggled with our ability to move the ball and the desire of our players to win. This event has been dominated by Edinburgh in previous years but this year is our time and the players and management staff must take a huge amount of pride in how we played. The game was extremely physical with three of our players needing to go to hospital with serious injuries which shows the body -on-the-line mentality that the players have and shows what a high standard of rugby that both teams are playing. The physicality was won by us tonight and ultimately that meant we came out on top.”
Ciaran Harries, one of the fifteen men who strode onto the pitch to do battle in honour of the University spoke to The Saint about the victory. Chuckling with his customary guttural laugh, he said, “It was an intense game. Lots of big hits were being put in left, right and centre. I was on the receiving end of a few myself but it was worth it. The boys played well, particularly when Edinburgh started to lose their composure. We kept our heads and that was the vital thing.”
The Varsity Match is, as has been alluded to earlier, one of the sporting jewels of the Scottish university scene.
First played in 1872, this is a tie full of tradition that has produced many a fine player from both universities over the years. Hosted in a city where there are reputedly over 40,000 alum from both universities, it is an incredibly prestigious event and for the team claiming victory it is an achievement worth celebrating.
The season continues apace with a number of fixtures for the various rugby teams coming up in the near future which will require the same level of dedication and commitment as was showcased in this most special of matches. That night in London will take some beating, however, and will go down unquestionably as one of the finest moments produced by the rugby club this season and can only go on to inspire the various teams to success not only in this season but also in the future.
Final score: University of St Andrews – 24. University of Edinburgh – 15.
Man of the match: Danny Clink