The significance of Wednesday’s 30th anniversary women’s Varsity Match fixture is not lost on either captain.
While neither Katie Marks (Cambridge) or Abby D’Cruz (Oxford) were born when the fixture began, both understand the importance of continuing the legacy of the women who paved the way for them.
It was a meeting in the summer of 1988 between Oxford’s Heather Bunting (later Lawrence) and Cambridge’s Sophia Peggers (later Marchandani) that led to the arrangement of the first match.
"We are battle-hardened and ready”
A late Peggers try secured an 8-6 away win for Cambridge at Iffley Road and so began an annual fixture which has run for the last three decades, making a breakthrough in 2015 when Twickenham played host for the first time.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Women’s #varsitymatch first played at Iffley Road on Thurs 10 March 1988 after a Challenge between @OURFCWomen’s Heather Bunting (later Lawrence) & @CURUFCW’s Sophia Pegers (later Marchandani). Read more: https://t.co/f4PxpJ8sGh pic.twitter.com/YMxnEciDsJ— The Varsity Match (@VarsityMatch) December 3, 2018
“We feel like we are representing all the women who have played before us,” says D’Cruz, an Australian fly half studying for Phd in Clinical Medicine.
“Heather Lawrence came to speak to us and it made us realise how far the game has come over the past 30 years.
“Those players never had the chance to play at Twickenham but the work they did means we do and so we play for them as well. That’s where we get our fire and drive as a side.”
For Oxford, both fire and drive will certainly be needed. The dark blues lost 24-0 in last year’s fixture and have yet to record a victory in the league this season while Cambridge remain unbeaten.
However D’Cruz’s message to the opposition is clear; write us off at your peril.
“We are battle-hardened and ready. Last year’s result gives us even more motivation,” says D’Cruz, one of seven returning blues in the starting XV.
Oxford have moved one of their star players, Sophie Trott, from full back to centre, where she will partner D’Cruz. Wing Helen Potts is the only other blue behind the scrum.
Up front, there are four returning blues and front-row forwards Hazel Ellender and Anna Bidgood will be hoping for a better day than they experienced last season.
“Preparation for this game began at the final whistle of last year’s match,” says D’Cruz. “We didn’t feel like we really showed what we’re able to do and so our focus is on putting that right.”
While D’Cruz keeps her side focused on revenge, Marks’ job is to avoid complacency.
"We have been training pretty much every day, sometimes twice a day"
She is one of 10 returning light blues selected to defend their title and says the team will go into the match with plenty of confidence.
“I think as a team we are thriving off the pressure of being defending champions,” says Marks, a history undergraduate.
“We know we have a lot of serious training behind us. We had an intense period of pre-season work and since then we have been training pretty much every day, sometimes twice a day, to ensure that we will be at our peak for Varsity day.”
And while Cambridge couldn’t have asked for a better build up, Marks believes reading too much into league form would be misleading.
“Oxford are playing in the Premier League and it is hard to scale the results between the two.”
Marks took over from Lara Gibson as captain this season, although Gibson will be in the side at full back to add her experience.
Centre Mary Coleman will be winning her third Blue, while No 8 Emily Pratt will be looking to make some dents in the Oxford defence with her strong carrying.
Oxford go into the match having won 19 Varsity Matches while Cambridge have won 12 and the Player of the Match will receive the Bunting-Peggers Trophy in honour of the duo who began it all.