Having had a rugby union weekend sent from heaven in the shape of The Millennium Stadium, Twickenham and Allianz Park a much quieter but no less anticipated weekend in the shape of my first live rugby league game of the season awaited me in Oxford. Yes you did read that right, Oxford Rugby League ply their trade at the historic Iffley Road Stadium, home to the Oxford University RUFC. The ground sits next door to the Oxford University sports centre, where Roger Bannister ran his famous sub 4 minute mile in 1954. The club joined the semi-pro Kingstone Press Championship in March 2013 along with the Hemel Stags and the Gloucestershire All Golds; they joined the London Skolars. So, as you can see rugby league is indeed alive and thriving in the South! This is a total joy for this league mad Essex girl! I arrived at the ground stupidly early to find a hive of activity as signs were put up and refreshments prepared. I had a chat with Julie the wife of Director Adrian Smith, and found a fellow RL enthusiast, along with their son Olli. Having about zero interest in shopping I strolled into Oxford across the famous and very lovely Magdalen Bridge and onwards past Magdalen College. It struck me as I was walking what a total privilege it is for the exceptional students that make it to both Oxford and Cambridge to study amongst such wonderful buildings and alongside so much history. I had my favourite pre game meal in Patisserie Valerie including the requisite strawberry tart!
I walked back to the ground in pouring rain and a fair wind; this was meant to be summer rugby I was going to see! What on earth! Oh but it was only early March so we get several seasons to go along with rugby league. Driving rain and wind isn’t generally conducive to a free running game of league, that’s always a big ask on a muddy pitch. However Sean Morris of Oxford clearly had no such qualms; as he found the ball in his hands after Dave Williams spilled the ball in the tackle. Sean ran the length of the pitch as any of the Skolars players who did manage to get a hand on him went way too high. He touched the ball down to score the try and Jimmy Rowlands converted to put the home team ahead by 6 points with just over 3 minutes gone. The next few phases of play were largely dominated by penalties given away, by Skolars mostly. There was a lot of lying on in the tackle, not picked up at all by the ref, he was clearly happy it was OK. A good tactic if you can get away with it to allow your defence to get lined up, detracts from a fast paced game as far as spectators are concerned though. Skolars were awarded a penalty for an infringement in the tackle but the kick missed touch, prompting the Skolars to tap their next penalty. My thoughts during the first half were that Oxford looked the fitter team, they also seemed to be more aware of where their team mates were when it came to passing, that didn’t always seem to be the case for Skolars. Oxford were to score next as Jimmy Rowland kicked a very sweet drop goal; Stevo would’ve been over the moon! Skolars managed to close the gap to one point close to half time however as Martyn Smith sneaked through the Oxford defence to score a try, Matt Bradley added the extras.
We had a moment of déjà vu as Sean Morris made a great break again, after taking a great pass from Tommy Connick, Morris ran in to score his second try of the day; Rowland successfully converted the try to take the score to Oxford 13 Skolars 6. Skolars had a couple of good attacks but they were met by an equally good defence. We had a small outbreak of handbags as Rob Thomas of Skolars took offence to something. Oxford looked to have scored again but the referee disallowed the try for a double movement. Skolars looked like a team of strangers for large periods of play, a comment I typed as I watched was ‘one man rugby’. However after the Oxford 8, Chris Clarke was sent to the bin, Skolars did put together a sequence of passes and James Carty went over to score, Matt Bradley again put Skolars to within a point of Oxford with the conversion. 12 man Oxford ensured the win however when Callum Malkeen ran in a try on the wing, Rowland who clearly had his kicking boots on converted the try to take the scores at the final whistle to Oxford RL 19 London Skolars 12.
As well as the win I imagine that Oxford will have been happy with many areas of their play; they looked fit and played well as a team; they should have some good wins this season. London Skolars didn’t have a very good day at the office and will no doubt have some tough weeks training to get themselves singing from the same hymn sheet. In spite of the weather and the fact that my team lost I thoroughly enjoyed my first rugby league game of the new season. Oxford RL have a great set up; with their bar being an old cricket pavilion, I should think watching proper summer rugby there must be a delight! I’ll most certainly be back!