The Armchair Pundit: No Varsity blues for Oxford University

Amid a compelling weekend of action and controversy, both on and off the field, the annual Varsity Match between Cambridge University and Oxford University almost slipped past unnoticed to the wider world.

First played in 1981, the annual clash between the two renowned educational establishments may not have the profile of the 15-man game’s Varsity Match or The Boat Race, but there is no less love lost when the Light and Dark Blues clash.

Oxford have come to dominate the game in recent years and the 2016 encounter at the Honourable Artillery Company in the heart of the City of London – venue for the past four editions – proved no different.

Indeed, the Dark Blues extended their record winning streak to seven games with a record victory margin over Cambridge, triumphing 70-0 on the back of a 34-point haul from man of the match James Clark.

Cambridge have now been out-scored 232-4 in the previous five matches and have not won since 2009 at the Twickenham Stoop, when the game was still being broadcast on Sky Sports.

A six-game losing streak towards the end of the last Century led to a revamp of the way rugby league was approached at Oxford, with the team now playing in a higher division of the BUCS rugby league competition than Cambridge and leading to them dominating the fixture.

If Cambridge can do likewise and restore some sort of parity – they trail 19-16 in the all-time series, with one drawn game back in 1994 – then there is no doubt this fixture could play a key role in promoting rugby league outside its traditional market.

The attendance of 782 was also higher than the Capital’s Kingston Press League One team, London Skolars, tend to attract to their home games.

Who says Oxbridge types don’t care about rugby league?

All we make is entertainment: The quality-versus-entertainment debate has been raging ever since the Super League clubs were soundly beaten by their National Rugby League counterparts in the recent World Club Series.

Regardless of whatever perceived gap in standard there is, the fifth week of Super League showed what a superb product it has in terms of being engaging and engrossing to watch.

First, there was the Thursday night thriller between Salford Red Devils and Warrington Wolves, which swung one way and then the other before Chris Sandow nailed a last-gasp drop goal to snatch a 31-30 victory for the visitors.

It was a similar story at the KC Lightstream Stadium the following night, with Marc Sneyd and Matty Smith exchanging drop goals in the closing stages as Wigan Warriors edged Hull FC 26-25.

To add an element of unpredictability, Widnes Vikings maintained their impressive start to the season and continue to lead the way in Super League after a 30-16 triumph over struggling Hull Kingston Rovers.

St Helens overcame Castleford Tigers 28-22 in another thriller, while there was little to choose between Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants as the defending champions finally got off the market with a 20-16 victory.

It should not be forgotten either that many of these Super League players made up the bulk of the England team which beat a world number one-ranked New Zealand team composed entirely of NRL players in a three-Test series last winter.

Irrespective of which players were and were not available for the tourists that was some statement. No doubt the Northern Hemisphere still has some catching up to do, but it should not be completely written off on the basis of three club fixtures.

Thursday night attendance watch: The crowd of 4,381 at the AJ Bell Stadium was 1,778 down on the 6,159 who turned up for the corresponding fixture on a Friday night last year.

In an effort to boost attendances, clubs and Super League have now decided to offer free away travel to fans for the Thursday night televised game.

This is undoubtedly progress, but with such a difference in crowds, the question of how many home fans are giving the Thursday night games a miss must be asked as well.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: When news broke of Salford being charged by The RFL for alleged salary cap breaches last Friday, there was almost a sense Twitter in that particular corner of Greater Manchester was about to go into meltdown.

However, Salford’s most prolific tweeter took to the social media platform to allay any fears.

“I do not know what all this fuss is about,” wrote Red Devils owner Koukash, adding: “Calm down!!!”

Vive la France: Toulouse Olympique could have hardly asked for a better return to the English leagues as they stormed to a 54-6 victory at home to Coventry Bears in the Kingston Press League One opener.

It is 11 years since the French outfit stunned the rugby league world with their run to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup and seven since their first crack at trying to follow the Catalans Dragons in joining the English league system.

Although their three-year spell in the Championship was generally considered a failure, especially after failing to gain a Super League license, this has not stopped them returning for another go.

Another French club leaving the Elite One competition to play in an overseas league has not been universally welcomed in France though, so every effort must be made to ensure there are benefits from this on both sides of the Channel.

Meanwhile, the longer-established Dragons picked up their first away win of the Super League season on Sunday after taking the honours in a high-scoring 42-28 victory against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

Championship round-up: Amid the unedifying saga of accusation and counter-accusation between the club and wantaway half-back Ryan Brierley, Leigh Centurions put their off-the-field issues to one side again with a 36-28 win over Sheffield Eagles.

But it is the resurgent London Broncos who really deserve the attention as they maintained their impressive start with a 29-22 win at home to Halifax.

Batley Bulldogs too showed no sign of their flying form abating as they kept ahead of the Broncos on points difference that to a 44-12 victory at home to Workington.

Featherstone Rovers’ Danny Craven showed it is not just the Super League boys who can do late drama as he landed a drop goal to snatch a 21-20 triumph for his side at home to Dewsbury Rams.

And there was good news for Swinton Lions as it was confirmed they seem to finally be on their way to ending their 24-years-and-counting exile from their home town after signing a lease on a site in Agecroft to build a new ground.

However, the mood was somewhat tempered as they suffered an 18-12 loss away to previously-winless Whitehaven.

League One round-up: The news does not get much better for the North Wales Crusaders, who were forced to make a further round of wage cuts as they bid to secure the future of the club.

An appeal for extra investment has yet to yield any significant response and their struggles continued on the field as they were beaten 37-18 at home to Barrow.

Neither was it much better for South Wales Scorpions, who were on the end of a 60-4 thrashing by Keighley Cougars.

It proved an emotional win for the Cougars, who celebrated the late Danny Jones’ birthday with a pint of Guinness – the favourite drink of the Wales international.

Elsewhere, Newcastle, Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets and York City Knights also kicked off the new League One campaign with wins.

Amateur score of the week: Dewsbury Celtic 10 Saddleworth Rangers 18, National Conference League Division Two. The new NCL season kicked off last Saturday and the only fixture in the second division saw two highly-decorated clubs go head-to-head in a Trans-Pennine clash.

Founded in 1879, Celtic lay claim to being one of the oldest Irish sports clubs in Yorkshire and possibly even Britain. They switched to playing football in the late 1890s and returned to rugby on joining the Northern Union in 1910.

Saddleworth are based in Oldham and are on course to lift the area’s Standard Cup for the sixth time since the turn of the Century after recently reaching the final again.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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