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Oxford or Cambridge | Which Tigers would win?

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The Varsity Matches come to Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Sunday, strengthening an historic link between the universities and Leicester Tigers.

The men’s and women’s teams from Oxford and Cambridge have transferred the annual ‘Battle of the Blues’ from Twickenham to the home of Tigers before they head back to HQ in 2022 for the 150th anniversary of their first meeting.

These will be the first meeting in the women’s and men’s events since December 2019 so we thought it would be worth trying to find the best teams of players from both Oxford and Cambridge who have played for Leicester down the years.

For this ‘virtual’ fixture, we’ve selected 25 internationals and five British & Irish Lions in the starting XVs, with a further 10 capped players waiting in reserve.

Among the legendary names are Oxford wing Alexander Obolensky, the Russian prince who famously scored twice in England’s 1935 win over the All Blacks, and Cambridge forward Wavell Wakefield, who won three Grand Slams during a then-record 31 games for England.

Carl Aarvold only makes the bench for the Light Blues despite playing for England and captaining the Lions in New Zealand. The wings are Alastair Smallwood, who won two Grand Slams and lost only once in 14 games for England, and Tigers favourite Tony Underwood.

Smallwood made his Leicester debut against Headingley in a match which marked the official opening of the Crumbie Stand at Welford Road in 1920. He scored 47 tries in 64 games for the club, including seven in one game against Manchester in December 1922.

The great Australian outside-half and full-back Tommy Lawton senior won three Blues for Oxford in the 1920s, while England hooker Edward Nicholson played four times in the Varsity contest in the 1930s and won five caps.

Packing down alongside him in the front row is Denys Dobson, who holds the unenviable record of being the first Lions player to be sent off. That was on the 1904 tour to Australia when he allegedly swore at the referee in the game against Northern Districts and was sent packing. The Lions left the field for 20 minutes in protest before resuming.

Dobson died in Nyasaland of injuries inflicted by a charging rhinoceros in 1916 at the age of 35. On hearing the news, it is said that one of his former teachers commented: “Dobson always did have a weak hand-off”.

The final member of the Oxford front row is Bill Havard, who played once for Wales in 1919, against the New Zealand Services. A military chaplain in World War One, he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross. Post-war he went on to become bishop of two dioceses of the Church in Wales.

Gwyn Francis, who also played against the New Zealanders in 1919, figures in the second row.

Back-row man Stephen Wilcock was an England trialist who played once for Leicester, being a stalwart at Northampton. The Tigers were a man short for a game against the Barbarians and he filled in – on the promise, it is said, of a club tie and a free bar!

Packing down alongside him is the remarkable Leo Price, who was once selected to play for England against Scotland in both rugby and hockey. He won five caps for England and played 16 times for his country at hockey.

He scored a memorable try against Wales at Twickenham in 1923. Wakefield kicked off into a strong wind, Price regathered and attempted a drop goal. It missed, but he followed up to score a try instead before a Welshman had even touched the ball.

Wakefield is joined by two more England caps in the Cambridge back row, Australian-born David Campbell and David Perry, while Welsh star Clem Lewis and England’s Tommy Kemp are among the reserves.

That allows Ken Scotland, of Scotland and Lions fame, to fit into the No10 shirt to accommodate Grand Slam full-back Marcus Rose at 15. Another Lion, Phil Horrocks-Taylor, is joined by Wyggeston Grammar School product Mike Wade at centre.

Wade made the first of his 166 appearances for Tigers as an 18-year-old and played for England three times. He captained what is regarded as one of the best Cambridge teams of all time in 1961 and led Leicester for two seasons before injury forced him to retire early.

Up front for the Light Blues, prop Nick Drake-Lee was one of the youngest props to play for England when he won the first of eight caps against Wales in 1963 at the age of 20. Alongside him is three-times-capped England hooker George Keeton, who was the first international player from Oakham School.

In the second row is another player who played for England, and Cambridge, on either side of World War One. John Greenwood, who won a then-Cambridge record of five Blues, played in England’s first two Grand Slam teams in 1913 and ’14, and then captained the side to a share of the Five Nations Championship in 1920.

Two great teams, some legendary players and a taste to the quality that Oxford and Cambridge have been able to provide to Leicester down the years.

Oxford Tigers

Name / Blues / Caps

15 Tom Lawton (Australia) / 1921-22-23 / 14
14 Alexander Obolensky (England) / 1935-37 / 4
13 Frank Tarr (England) / 1907-08-09 / 4
12 Tony Novis (England / Lions) / 1927 / 7, 3
11 Ian Botting (England) 1949-50 / 2
10 Niall Malone (Ireland) / 1992 / 3
9 Brian Smith (Australia / Ireland) / 1988-89 / 6, 9
1 Denys Dobson (England / Lions) /  1899-00-01 / 6, 4
2 Edward Nicholson (England) / 1931-32-33-34 / 5
3 Bill Havard (Wales) / 1919 / 1
4 Gwyn Francis (Wales) / 1919 / 2
5 Aubrey Dowson (England) / 1896 / 1
6 Leo Price (England) / 1920-21 / 4
7 Stephen Wilcock (England Trialist) / 1957-58-59 / -
8 Neil Martin (England Students) /1993-94 / -

In Reserve
Dick Cattell (England), Ian Coutts (Scotland), John Hume (Scotland), Katie Walton (England), Henry Franklin (England Trialist), Laurence Boyle (England Students)

Cambridge Tigers
15 Marcus Rose (England) / 1979-80-81 / 10
14 Tony Underwood (England / Lions) /1990-91 / 27,  1
13 Mike Wade (England) / 1958-59-60-61 / 3
12 Phil Horrocks-Taylor (England / Lions) / 1956-57 / 9, 1
11 Alastair Smallwood (England) / 1919        / 14
10 Ken Scotland (Scotland / Lions) / 1958-59-60 / 27
9 Jim Parsons (England Services) / 1938 / -
1 Nick Drake-Lee (England) / 1961-62-63 / 8
2 George Keeton (England) / 1899-00 / 3
3 Peter Moore / 1947-48 / -
4 Gus Innes (Australia U21) / 1998-99-00-01 / -
5  John Greenwood (England) / 1910-11-12-13-19 / 13
6 David Campbell (England) / 1936 / 2
7 Wavell Wakefield (England) / 1921-22 / 31
8 David Perry (England) / 1958 / 15

In Reserve
Tommy Kemp (England), Clem Lewis (Wales), Nathan Rocyn-Jones (Wales), Carl Aarvold (England / Lions), Alf Hind (England / Lions), Rab Bruce-Lockhart (Scotland), Ken Fyfe (Scotland), Tom Murphy (Queensland Reds), Ben Woods (England A), Ross Broadfoot (England U21), Nigel Richardson (England Students)

*With thanks to Rob Cole and Stuart Farmer