St Andrews triumphant in Varsity nail-biter


The evening of Saturday, the 26th of September 2015, saw battle between two old rivals on a rugby pitch, in one of the national stadiums in the United Kingdom. A dramatic end saw the away side prevail over the home side, and to the victor the considerable spoils.

Of course this was not the England vs Wales match at Twickenham at the Rugby World Cup, but rather the Scottish Varsity Match between Edinburgh University 1st XV and St Andrews University 1st XV, taking place at Murrayfield for the first time the fixture – billed pre-match as “The World’s Oldest Varsity Match” – was reinstated four years ago, having previously taken place in London.

The warm-up fixtures, from a St Andrews point of view, were an inauspicious start to the day. Both the Men’s 2nd and 3rd XVs lost their matches against their Edinburgh counterparts on the back-pitches, while the Women’s 1st XV lost heavily by a score of 36-7 on the Murrayfield pitch immediately prior to the main event.

Such events did not deter the thousands cheering of St Andrews supporters pouring into the ground as the respective 1st XVs ran onto the pitch, and their tunrout was vindicated as St Andrews immediately took the iniative from fly-half Scott Docherty’s kick-off. Early pressure led to a scrum deep inside the Edinburgh 22-metre line, and to an early try as flanker Ruari Bell opened the scoring in the 4th minute near the left-hand touchline, with scrum-half Finn Murphy converting.

A pre-kick-off change in personnel for St Andrews (inside-centre Alex Kennedy off for Toby Hall) did not seem to have disrupted the team’s plans, and in the 10th minute they extended their lead. A kick from Docherty forced the knock-on from Edinburgh and another scrum deep inside their 22. The resulting attack brought another try, this time from Murphy, who – despite having a better angle than at the first try – missed the chance to add another two points to his team’s tally of 12 points.

Those dominant first 10 minutes were to be the peak of St Andrews’ play as the match evened out from thereon, with pauses in play being met with a rather dubious soundtrack over the tannoy. Nonetheless, a similar series of events set in motion for a third St Andrews try in the 24th minute as Docherty crossed the line following yet another scrum near the Edinburgh 5-metre line to make the score 17-0. Murphy once again missed the chance to convert.

Until then, the St Andrews forwards (particularly, of course, their work in the scrum) had kept Edinburgh at bay by this point, and any possession the home team had had ended in a kick to gain territory. But the momentum was to swing their way as an extended spell of pressure led to a penalty 5 metres from the St Andrews goal line in the 31st minute. One minute and several attempts later by the Edinburgh forwards to scramble the ball over, prop Callum Simpson finally succeeded in doing so; the conversion by number 22 Will Stephen reduced the deficit to 10 points.

Emboldened by their efforts, Edinburgh sustained their pressure and a penalty in the 37th minute brought the chance for Stephen to kick to goal. His effort, however, bounced off the post and St Andrews were able to clear their lines. This reprieve, however, was only temporary, and as the clock approached the 40-minute mark, the ball was held up over the St Andrews line. Such defiance was in vain, though, as the 5-metre scrum for Edinburgh brought a second try, scored by scrum-half Sandy Robson. Stephen was unable to reduce the score further, but there was no doubting which side held the psychological pressure going into half-time.

The break was a chance for the Edinburgh Women’s team to celebrate their win by being handed their trophy, with the Player of the Match award being given to centre Lisa Thompson. The next 40 minutes, however, would decide whether the weekend would end in a clean sweep for the Edinburgh University Rugby Club.

The second half started much in the same way the first had ended, and only two knock-ons in quick succession ended Edinburgh’s chances of edging the score closer. The respite was only brief, and Edinburgh were enjoying by this point the lion’s share of possession and territory.

Chants of “O When the Saints” from both the main and VIP stands (the latter being led jointly by the Other Guys and various other St Andrews guests) failed to deter Edinburgh, and more pressure and penalties in the 52nd minute led to Will Stephen adding to his personal points tally by scoring under the posts. Crucially, his conversion took Edinburgh into the lead for the first time in the match and the score to 19-17.

For the next ten minutes of so, the game quitened down considerably, with Edinburgh’s slim advantage not looking particularly threatened. This was until the 66th minute, when a sudden St Andrews penalty brought Murphy the chance to kick to regain the lead. His attempt from just outside the Edinbugh 22 missed, but soon after Edinburgh saw their manpower reduced to 14 men after fullback Ian Sexton was sent to the sin bin. From a similar spot, Murphy’s attempt was successful and St Andrews regained the lead by one point going into the last 10 minutes.

Despite this, immediate Edinburgh pressure from the kick-off led to a 5-metre scrum from the St Andrews try line. Once again, the ball was held up over the line; but just like the first half, Edinburgh were able to score, this time through substitute Ian Vance. Stephen’s conversion took Edinburgh to a six point lead with just over five minutes remaining.

This turnaround was in many ways the culmination of repeated St Andrews indiscipline, as if the pressure from their opposite had got into their collective mindset. This should not take away, however, from the efforts of Edinburgh to have found themselves in such a position bearing in mind the first half hour of the match.

By this point, both teams were visibly tiring, with mistakes creeping into each other’s game. But out of nowhere, and using their last reserves of energy, St Andrews broke the Edinburgh line, and number 22 Rory Gardner scored in the corner to give his team one last chance at winning.

From the touchline, and to a chorus of unacceptable booing that had accompanied him throughout the match, Murphy was able to swerve, bend, arc his kick towards goal, for 27-26, and history.


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