George Robson will have to be on his best behaviour at Twickenham on Thursday with World Cup final referee Nigel Owens in charge of the 137th Varsity Match (3.00pm).
After a decade as a professional for Harlequins, Oyonnax and London Irish, the 33-year-old will be in the Oxford line-up seeking to win back the title from arch-rivals Cambridge at a venue where he won the English Premiership in 2012 and set an unwanted record in a game against Wasps.
That was back in 2009 when he was dismissed for a head butt on Joe Simpson after a mere 46 seconds of a Premiership match. With the world’s top official on duty, and with a yellow card already in the bag against Cardiff in the Major Stanley’s fixture, the former Quins enforcer will have to tread carefully on his return.
“Twickenham is an amazing place. I played there for the first time when I was 15 while at school at Stourbridge and I won the Premiership with Quins in 2012,” said Robson, who is studying for an EMBA.
“I’ve also got a few bad memories having been red carded there after 45 seconds. The occasion can get the better of teams at Twickenham, although it will always be a special place for me to play.
“In my career I played at Wembley and the Stade de France, but there is something special about Twickenham.”
Both teams will come into the game with identical records, with seven wins from their 10 warm-up fixtures. Cambridge have won the last two games having lost six in a row prior to that.
Both sides are captained by professional players. Light Blues skipper Nick Koster used to play for the Stormers, Bath and Bristol, while Oxford captain Dom Waldouck, a Heineken Cup winner with Wasps at Twickenham in 2007, will pick up his contract at Newcastle Falcons next week.
The Cambridge forwards got the upper hand in the end last year and the winning margin wasn’t just 10 points (24-10), but three tries to one. Waldouck realises that to get back to winning ways at Twickenham this year Oxford must get parity up front and that will mean getting to grips with a Light Blues pack that can boast five forwards who were involved in last season’s victory.
“Cambridge are a top team who will go in as favourites. Nick’s physicality and abrasiveness epitomises his team and that’s what we struggled with last year,” admitted Waldouck.
“It is a very new group this year and there is not much hang-over from last year or the season before, which is good. The downside is we don’t have as much experience of the fixture and with the experience Cambridge have they will be going in as firm favourites for the game.
“But we like being the underdogs. When I was at Wasps we used to win the big games as underdogs. We know it is going to be a huge challenge.”
After 10 years as a professional in South Africa and England, Koster says he has returned to the version of the game that he first fell in love with and is looking to continue the Cambridge winning streak to secure a first hat-trick of wins wince 2007.
“It is a big pressure game, a World Cup final in many ways for these guys. Playing at Twickenham is big enough, but playing in front of 20,000 fans is a unique experience,” said Koster.
“Then there is all the history and tradition that goes with the fixture. We are very firmly the underdogs because Oxford have got six or seven players with professional experience. So we aren’t feeling any pressure going in the Varsity Match.
“It is positive that we have won four in a row coming into the Varsity Match,, although they have all been tight games. There is loads of character in this Cambridge team, but we are struggling to put together an 80 minute performance and that is something we have been working on. We tend to switch on and off and we can’t afford that at Twickenham.”
Oxford will have the former England Under 20, Saracens and London Irish full back Ben Ransom making his debut in the fixture, while Cambridge centre Jake Hennessey has been capped by England Sevens since making a winning start to his Varsity Match career last year.
Tickets are still available on the door at Twickenham Stadium for the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Varsity Match and 137th Men’s Varsity Match from £25 adults, £15 students and £10 juniors (The Women’s Varsity Match 2018: Kick-off 11.30am | The Men’s Varsity Match 2018: Kick-off 3.00pm).
UK residents can watch both matches on the BBC – Women’s Varsity Match BBC Red Button from 11.30am and Men’s Varsity Match on BBC 2 from 2.45pm.
Oxford University Men (OURFC)
15. Ben Ransom (Tonbridge / St Catherine’s)
14. Dan Barley * (Hampton School / St Edmund Hall)
13. Conor Kearns * (Glenstal Abbey / Jesus)
12. Dom Waldouck * (Latymer Upper School / Kellogg, captain)
11. Tom Stileman * (Cranleigh / St Peter’s)
10. Tom Humberstone (Peter Symonds School / Hertford)
9. George Tresidder (QEGS, Ashbourne / Harris Manchester)
1. Ben Parker (RGS, Newcastle / Brasenose)
2. John Aaron Henry * (Cambridge House Grammar School / Somerville)
3. Joe Morris * (King Edward VI, Aston / St Edmund Hall)
4. Jasper Dix (The Perse School / Oriel)
5. George Robson (Bromsgrove / Keble)
6. Charlie Pozniak * (Manchester GS / St Benet’s Hall)
8. Sam Miller (Harrow / St Edmund Hall)
9. Sven Kerneis (Whitgift / St Peter’s)
16. Niel Naude (Rondebosch Boys HS, Cape Town / Keble)
17. Conor Hennessy (Rice College, Ennis / St Catherine’s)
18. Alasdair King (Sydney GS / Keble)
19. George Warr (Eton / New)
20. Ryan Jones (Ibstock Place School / St Edmund Hall)
21. Dylan McGagh (Rockwell College, Tipperary / Magdalen)
22. Louis Jackson (King Edward VI, Stratford / Oriel)
23. Henry Martin (Marlborough / St Benet’s Hall)
15. Joey Gatus (QEGS, Wakefield / Corpus Christi)
14. Elliott Baines (QEGS, Penrith / Peterhouse)
13. Henry King * (Chipping Campden School / St Catharine’s)
12. Jake Hennessey * (Kings Wimbledon / Trinity)
11. Joe Story (Dubai College / Trinity)
10. Mike Phillips * (Bedford Modern / Emmanuel)
9. Chris Bell * (St Paul’s / Girton)
1. Charlie MacCallum (Magdalen College School / Downing)
2. Miles Huppatz * (Sir Joseph Williamson Mathematical School / Downing)
3. William John Dean * (Clifton / St John’s)
4. Jordan Eriksen (Chipping Norton School / Girton)
5. Andrew Hunter * (Cranbrook, Sydney / St Edmund’s)
6. Stephen Leonard * (Llandovery College / Emmanuel)
7. Sean McMahon (Clongowes Wood College / Gonville & Caius)
8. Nick Koster * (Bishops College / Queens’, captain)
16. Sam Schusman (Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School / Magdalene)
17. Henry Somers (Silverdale School / Hughes Hall)
18. Jonathan Dixon * (Royal School Armagh / Downing)
19. Rowan Beckett (Bradford GS / Peterhouse)
20. Olly Smart (Merchant Taylors’ School / Downing)
21. Charlie Saunders (Radley / Selwyn)
22. Oliver Gnodde (St John’s College, Johannesburg / St Edmund’s)
23. Rory Triniman (Canford / Hughes Hall)
* Denotes Blue
Men’s Varsity Match Officials 2018
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
AR1: Clare Daniels (RFU)
AR2: Greg Garner (RFU)
TMO: Keith Lewis (RFU)
No.4/Res Ref: Craig Maxwell-Keys (RFU)
No 5: Harry Walbaum (RFU)
Time Keeper: John Burtenshaw (RFU)