St Andrews retain the Men’s Scottish Varsity Match Trophy
Last Saturday saw the world’s oldest varsity match between the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh return to Edinburgh; the highly competitive fixture once again showed us why this is the highlight of the Scottish University Rugby calendar.
The rousing support of both sides combined with a strong attendance made for a Varsity ambiance that most universities would be envious of.
This year it was Edinburgh’s turn to host proceedings at their home ground of Peffermill; last time out it was the Royal Borough of St Andrews that had the honour of welcoming this most ancient of rivalries.
It would be impossible to introduce this fixture without mentioning the historical backdrop. Since the resurrection of the Scottish Varsity in 2011, each side have claimed five scalps meaning this year would settle (at least for another twelve months) who would have the bragging rights.
For the Saints, there was undoubtedly still a bitter taste in the mouth for their fourth-year crop who had the indignity of suffering a 62-0 defeat at the hands of Edinburgh on the last occasion that the Varsity game was held in the capital in 2019. Moreover, a double after last year’s first triumph since 2016 would cement claims of the tide turning at the top of Scottish university rugby. The motivation of the Edinburgh team, however, was similarly fierce having lost a tight battle to their oldest rivals at University Park last year.
With just under two thousand spectators gathered round the pristine turf in fine weather, the teams emerged from the changing rooms through the stands with the sound of the pipes following closely behind. The scene was set for a furiously fought spectacle.
Varsity fixtures, much like World Cup Finals, are often low scoring and nervy affairs. One could certainly sense the occasion weighing on the minds of players in the opening exchanges which were characterised by some loose kicking from both sides. Within ten minutes however, there were signs of threat from each respective backline. Edinburgh’s dangerous looking Luke Armstrong was already striking the ball high to put pressure on the Saints back three, while St Andrews inside-centre and Club Captain Brodie Wells had started slotting some of his signature 50-22’s. It was the home side, however, who were managing to string phases together more effectively. The men in green managed to get onto the front foot after Rex Tinsley gathered a box kick nicely, which eventually led to an Edinburgh penalty in a straightforward kicking position. It was first blood to Edinburgh (3-0).
As the game continued, there was some foreboding signs for Edinburgh at the set piece with Liam Kerr giving the home pack a terrifying reminder of his presence as a jumper from last year’s exchanges. Despite this, further indiscipline from St Andrews meant it was not long until Edinburgh were once again deep inside their territory. The best efforts of Vice-Club Captain Harry Rodgers in winning a key turnover penalty could not prevent Edinburgh eventually getting another very similar shot at goal. Armstrong on this occasion pushed the ball a fraction wide, leaving the scoreboard untroubled.
The fifteen-minute mark saw some more encouraging signs for St Andrews. A slip from Edinburgh winger Nate Holm trying to clear up seventeen-year-old-debutant scrum-half Ross Cadzow’s tactical kick had the St Andrews support in high spirits for a brief moment, while staunch work at the breakdown led by open-side flanker Fergus Cato was turning momentum. Any glimpses of daylight were short lived for the Saints, as a hard-won scrum penalty from experienced tighthead Sam Wright was reversed for dissent. Edinburgh’s penalty allowed for a strong carry from Varsity regular Enzo Croy (No. 5) off the top of a line out, opening up space for the Edinburgh backs. Playing out the back, the dangerous Alex Teague playing outside centre managed to step to the outside and burst through the line, crossing the whitewash in the corner for the first try of the afternoon. With the conversion far on the touchline pushed wide, it remained 8-0 to Edinburgh with twenty-five minutes on the clock.
Remembering their triumph the previous year coming after conceding the first try, the early score did little to phase the men in sky blue. In fact, it seemed to settle the nerves and act as a catalyst for a period of sustained pressure. Both the lineout and scrum were increasingly dominated by the away side. In addition, St Andrews were starting to get their hands on the ball more, with South African duo James McDonald (fly half) and Sean Varty (full-back) both looking like notably running threats. Sustained pressure after yet another strong lineout again from St Andrews saw a cynical offense from Edinburgh’s scrum half Cameron McDonald punished with a yellow card much to the delight of St Andrews support. Kicking to the corner, the dominant St Andrews line out and maul meant the referee no option but to award a penalty try. Not only that, but the infringement saw another Edinburgh player placed in the bin; this time it was flanker Nick Baines. The swing was dramatic. Pulling the score back to 8-7 was one thing but reducing the home side to thirteen men presented an enticing opportunity for the visitors. The next ten minutes would be crucial.
Although in a somewhat perilous position, Edinburgh did a fantastic job of closing out the half and running down the clock without further damage to the score line. In fact, strong tactical kicking led to an outside opportunity at a further three points for Edinburgh with a penalty just inside the ten-metre line. A fantastically struck penalty from Armstrong saw Edinburgh extend their lead to 11-7. It was advantage green at half time, but far too close to call.
Strong words in the St Andrews locker room seemed to have had limited initial impact as Edinburgh continued to look the more likely victors early after the break. A strong kick chase allowed them to put pressure on the St Andrews exit, resulting in an early penalty inside the away 22 for holding on. It was another straightforward chance at three points for Armstrong, which he took effortlessly to make the score 14-7. While the men in sky blue were up against it, the night is darkest the hour before the dawn.
Ten minutes into the second half saw an opportunity for St Andrews to deploy their effective maul from the lineout after another well executed bit of territory kicking from Brodie Wells. Archetypal strong carries from hooker Josh van Vuuren and captain John Paterson saw the away team work their way into the Edinburgh red zone, eventually winning another line out just five metres from the Edinburgh line. Building another strong platform from the lineout, the St Andrews forwards once again powered over the line with Fergus Cato going over. A well taken conversion by Varty meant the scores were level at 14-14 with twenty-five minutes on the clock. With the game in the balance, history was waiting for the side that stepped up now.
As the clock ticked over the hour mark a few signs of fatigue started to appear for both sides, with handling errors and general scrappy play. The kicking battles started to lengthen, but Edinburgh’s full-back Angus Reid continued to look assured at the back. The St Andrews set piece, however, continued to be steadfast with three-time Varsity man Sam Wright leading the charge.
With fifteen minutes on the clock, the usually reassured pairing of the Edinburgh fly-half and full-back put together a string of loose passes resulting in a St Andrews scrum within five metres of the line. Yet another scrum penalty meant that St Andrews could go to the corner. Everyone in the ground knew what was coming next as the men in blue again opted for the driving maul. It seemed almost inevitable that Fergus Cato was celebrating his second try moments later. Such success at the set piece must have brought a smile to the face of the typically composed David Morris, the new St Andrews Director of Rugby and former hooker.
The next five minutes saw a spirted back and forth in the middle third. Eventually James McDonald’s chip over the line allowed St Andrews to extract a penalty at the breakdown, giving them yet another chance to put the ball in the corner. Despite good disruption from Edinburgh at the lineout, a neck roll saw them once again penalised in a dangerous area. A headache for Edinburgh as St Andrews had the throw once again in touching distance of the line. Valiantly the Edinburgh maul defence held this time, but a scrum moments later saw the Edinburgh tighthead penalised allowing another effort from the lineout for the St Andrews pack. It was St Andrews number 8 Pete Dodd who broke away from the maul to score the try and put the game beyond doubt, a deserved reward for his heroic efforts to return from injury for the fixture. One final effort from Edinburgh ended in no avail in the dying seconds as a slick manoeuvre into the corner was pulled up by the referee for a forward pass which saw Jack Doherty denied.
Thus, it was St Andrews captain and Steven Sims Man of the Match John Paterson who hoisted the Scottish Varsity Cup after the final whistle. The close nature of the score line doing justice to both teams, and taking the overall record to 6-5 to St Andrews.
Final Score: 24-14
Attendance: circa 2000
Watch the game now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcx8wEyKb_Y