Legendary Norwegian-American football coach Knute Rockne once declared, “Football is a game played with arms, legs, and shoulders, but mostly from the neck up.” On May 7th, 2016, the Oxford Lancers proved that they had what it took – both above and below the neck – to combat the Cambridge University Pythons in the teams’ highly anticipated Varsity Bowl.
Fuelling a sporting rivalry that began in the early nineteenth century, Oxford’s coaches, led by Andy McKay, ensured that the Lancers would start fast and make this matchup one for the ages. On the team’s very first offensive drive, standout rookie running back Connor Thompson punched the ball into the end-zone for a Lancers’ touchdown. The subsequent extra point made by Oxford’s ever-versatile kicker, Alex Dale, stripped the Pythons of their initial venom and effectively set the tone for the rest of the half.
During the second quarter, Oxford’s colourful starting QB Will Szymanski added some additional flavour to the match when he “Hester high-stepped” his way into the endzone following a 2 yard run. A subsequent safety garnered after a fumbled snap during the Cambridge punt contributed another 2 points to the increasingly lopsided score. Indeed, over the course of the first half, the Pythons’ offence was decisively and consistently shut down by the hard-hitting Oxford defence, led by Llew Davies (aka the Welsch Dragon), Ben “Hitme” Shillito, and Stuart Sanders. These three veterans led the team in tackles, holding their rivals to just 3.2 yards per play throughout the game.
Capitalising on Cambridge’s soft coverage – and making the most of a stellar performance by Oxford’s fearsome O-line – Szymanski heaved a 41 yard bomb to All-American OW (Offensive Weapon) Ahmad Nasir to finish up the half with another Lancers touchdown. Rain drops the size of the Python supporters’ tears poured down on Tilsley field as the two teams headed into the locker room, with Oxford leading Cambridge 23-0 at the half
Determined to not let their considerable lead slip away, the Lancers came back ready to dominate the third quarter. Perhaps no player was more determined to make his mark than rookie Joe “Trinity” Barker, who promptly turned a 15 yard fumble recovery into a touchdown, setting the Pythons back yet another 6 points. This quarter also saw the reappearance of veteran defensive back George Fountain, who – after a season-long hiatus due to injury – inflicted a fountain of pain upon a Cambridge receiver immediately after entering the game.
Other members of the Lancers’ secondary put on equally impressive performances during the second half, with veterans Tom Fox, Peter Graham, Tom Mattinson, and standout rookie Josh Allen holding their own against the down-but-not-out Pythons. Additional strong performances from Rob Main, Leon Chng, team spiritual leader Jonny “Priest” Brooks-Bartlett, and captain Henk Schopmans ensured that the Pythons remained scoreless and visibly desperate throughout the second half.
Adhering to American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s advice to “Never wound a snake; kill it,” the Lancers offence continued to rack up points until the final whistle was blown. Szymanski connected to OW Nasir for another touchdown (Nasir also had a pick 6 courtesy of a Python INT), while RB Thompson put another 6 points on the board for Oxford, resulting in a whopping 154 total rushing yards. Kicker Dale had an equally impressive day, making 5 out of 6 of his extra point attempts, and gaining 38 yards in his alternate role as a receiver.
Thus, after four painful years of never clinching a victory in the Varsity Bowl, the Lancers’ slicing off of the Python’s head was reminiscent of underdog Neville Longbottom’s epic slaying of the snake Nagini in the final instalment of the Harry Potter series. Unlike the J.K. Rowling novels, however, it remains to be seen whether or not the soul of Voldemort – alias Cambridge – will manage to rise again. If it does, there is no doubt that the Lancers will be ready and waiting.