If you mean to start as you wish to go on, then Bluebell Nicholls couldn’t have wished for a better beginning to her rugby career at Cambridge.
She swapped local, parent-clad touchlines at Uckfield and Pulborough rugby clubs for the towering stands of Twickenham last year and capped her Women’s Varsity Match debut with a try to help seal a 24-0 triumph for the Light Blues.
Now the teenager, who is studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, is hoping to double up with a second victory and to maintain her unbeaten run this season in the Cambridge ranks. She has moved in off the wing to centre this year, but hasn’t lost her nose for the try line with eight touchdowns already this season.
Rugby wasn’t the main reason for Nicholls to choose Cambridge, but it was a consideration. She watched the 2016 Varsity Match on her laptop when she was applying to King’s College. Oxford upset the odds to win 3-0 and Nicholls determined there and then she would have to do something about that if she got accepted.
“I remember being really impressed by the fact the Women’s Varsity Match was not only being played at Twickenham, the home of English rugby, but it was also being shown on television. I’d already applied to go to Cambridge and, when Oxford won, I said to myself I can’t let that happen again if I get in,” said Nicholls.
And she didn’t! She went up to Cambridge with a strong rugby background and she has mixed and matched her Varsity Match training with sessions at her club, Saracens. With 11 games under her belt already this season for both teams, she has only tasted defeat once – and she isn’t ready for another helping today!
“I was very excited and very nervous coming to Twickenham last year. I’d only just arrived at Cambridge and her I was playing at one of the greatest rugby arenas in the world. I’d only every grown up with a few parents shouting from the touchline, but there were hundreds in the stands and it was on TV,” added Nicholls.
“Playing against Oxford is the highlight of our year and the mind-set of the team is fixed by our captain. Playing rugby is a big commitment alongside your studies, but Kate Marks has been magnificent as our leader. We would all take a bullet for her.”
It won’t be that hazardous out there today, but Cambridge intends to throw the kitchen sink at Oxford once again this year. The fact it is the 30th anniversary of the first Women’s Varsity Match has added extra bite to the great occasion and the significance of the celebration hasn’t been lost on Nicholls.
“We had some great events with alumni this season and we all realise we are
in such a different position to the team of 1988. We now play in a club that has amalgamated with the men and we share all facilities,” she said.
“It has been 30 years of progress and 30 years of trying to get equal standing. We now have that and we are eternally grateful as young women for the fight put up by those players who went before us to help get us to where we are now.”
Unlike many girls who arrive at Cambridge, Nicholls was well versed in the art of rugby. She was “bitten by the bug” at a young age after a friend persuaded her to have a go at the game at school. From there she progressed to a club and now on to the 2nd XV at Saracens, playing regularly in the Tyrell’s Development League.
Marks took her team for a training session at Saracens in the build-up to Twickenham and Nicholls felt it was an invaluable step along the road to hopefully retaining their title today.
“We trained alongside the 2nd XV at Sarries and it was a really good learning curve for the girls. It was a step up in class and we found ourselves going up against the quality of player we don’t usually face,” added Nicholls.
“Rugby is a game of experience and that was an invaluable one for us. I arrived with four years of playing behind me, but that isn’t always the case for many of the girls. I started at Ringmer Academy, in East Sussex, and then moved on to Uckfield.
“I didn’t want to go to the rugby session at school because I thought it would be too cold and muddy, but my friend persuaded me and then my PE teacher, Paula Peters, encouraged us to join the club side run by her husband, Simon. I was 14 then, played a year at the club and then half a season at U18 level at Pulborough RFC.
“I had always been sporty. I was too short for netball, but I was big enough, strong enough and competitive enough for rugby. I loved it.”
Just how much should become obvious today when she showcases her talent at Twickenham once again.
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.