Sophie Trott still remembers the excitement she felt when her father first took her to Twickenham to watch England play Wales in the Six Nations. She was only 10 and couldn’t believe how vast and noisy it was at the home of English rugby.
She can still recall that England won, James Haskell was the man of the match and that she has lovingly kept the programme in a draw at home. Never for one moment did that little girl ever dream that one day she would grace the hallowed turf.
Yet the uncrowned queen of Oxford women’s rugby over the past three years will make her fourth and final appearance in the Women’s Varsity Match this week. Not a bad return for someone who never played the game before she went up to Wadham to read chemistry.
“I went to a school where the traditional girls’ sports of netball and hockey were all that we played. To be honest, while I’ve always been sporty, I was getting a bit fed up of them. I’d had a few taster sessions of rugby at school, and my PE teacher did suggest I could be good at the game, but it wasn’t until I went to Oxford that I actually played a game,” admitted Trott.
The thing that tipped the scales in favour of rugby over so many other sports was the fact that Trott’s arrival at Oxford coincided with the historic move of the Women’s Varsity Match to Twickenham back in 2015. It was too big an incentive to turn her back on.
“As soon as I read that the Women’s Varsity
Match was going to be played at Twickenham it immediately became my goal to play there. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen, but I simply had to give it a go,” she added.
“I didn’t go down to the pre-season training sessions, but then I turned up for a few of the development days. I was thrown in at the deep end against Cardiff Met in my first game, out on the wing, and wasn’t really sure what I’d let myself in for after they had walloped us.
“But on the bus back home, our coach Gary Street came up to me and asked if I had the Varsity Match in my mind. He obviously saw something in me and five games later I was running out at Twickenham.”
Street knows a thing or two about rugby, and especially women’s rugby, having coached England to the Women’s World Cup title a year earlier. His coaching job at Oxford was largely introducing the players to the basics of the game, but he instantly saw the potential in Trott.
Her Varsity Match debut might not have gone to plan – Cambridge won 52-0 with eight tries in the inaugural fixture at Twickenham – but it didn’t dent her confidence or determination. Her opposite number, the majestic Cambridge full back Alice Middleton, carried off all the plaudits with a
hat-trick of tries and 27 points to win the Bunting-Pegers player of the match award to crown the Light Blues glory.
Trott simply smiled her way through the adversity and determined to come back better and stronger the next year. She did that and more.
“I still have so many great memories of that first Varsity Match even though we were well beaten. My Mum and my sisters (she is one of triplets) couldn’t understand why I was still smiling so much at the final whistle. I’d just played at Twickenham!” she explained.
Fast –forward a year and the boot was on the other foot. Middleton was the Cambridge captain, but this time it was Trott who was smiling for all the right reasons as she led an amazing rearguard action that ended with Oxford winning 3-0.
This time the Bunting-Pegers award went to the Oxford full back and Street had nothing but the highest of praise for her performance.
“We’ve seen over the past 12 months what an outstanding talent Sophie is. She is like that week in, week out. Unless they are exceptional, then they are not going past Sophie. That tackle in the corner with minutes to go was the best of the bunch I think,” said an emotional Street after the 2016 triumph.
“She doesn’t realise how good she is really. There were some England coaches here watching today, so I think they could have a good look at her.”
Two tackles in particular stood out in a pulsating final 10 minutes of that game as Trott put into practice her simple playing philosophy – “when I play full back I always say to myself that it is me
or the try line and I throw my body at anything”. Sophie Farrant and Lara Gibson were felled when Cambridge tries looked imminent and the Dark Blue defensive wall refused to be breached.
This year she has been moved up into the centre to partner her flat mate and captain, Abby D’Cruz, and she can’t wait for one final run out at her favourite ground. An ankle injury cast a small doubt over her fitness, but last week she passed a fitness test in her first game for five weeks and is raring to go again.
“It will be sad not to have the Varsity Match to work towards, and look forward to, in the future, but to have had four chances to play at Twickenham has been incredible. It is because of this place that I fell in love with rugby,” said Trott.
“Some people have suggested that I should stay on for another four years and study for a PhD, but
I think it is probably time to go out into the real world next year. I do intend to keep on playing rugby when I leave, just as so many of the girls who played with me in the past few years have done.”
That is probably the biggest and best effect of all of switching the game to Twickenham!
Tickets for the 30th Anniversary of Women’s Varsity Match and 137th Men’s Varsity Match at Twickenham on Thursday, 6 December, are still available from £25 adults, £15 students and £10 juniors at www.thevarsitymatch.com.