The Oxford men’s Blues produced a stunning display in the season’s final BUCS Weekend to clinch 5th position after some of the most dramatic matches in recent OUSRC history.
The team managed to register wins over the Imperial and Heriot Watt universities, while picking up valuable points against Sheffield in a narrow defeat.
This result means that Oxford has a great chance of retaining their status in the Premier League by being drawn against a weaker Division 1 team in the all-important playoff match.
The team was keenly aware of the stakes going into the weekend, and ensured that they arrived bright and early in Birmingham on Saturday morning for their first match at 10am. This was to be against Imperial, thought to be the weakest team in the 4 team group. This proved to be the case at first, as Tom ‘The Flamingo’ Trott and Tim ‘The Rhino’ Delport eased to comfortable 3-0 victories. Joe ‘The Lone Rat’ Sibley found it slightly tougher going against his dogged opponent, as he was forced into a fifth game by some crafty lobs from the imperial player. The Oxford man managed to get the job done however, coming through 3-2. Mandela ‘The Gazelle’ Patrick locked horns with Seigo Masuda, the top-ranked Imperial players renowned for his consistency and physical strength. Aware that the match was already won, and more crucial ties lay ahead, Patrick could be forgiven for not trying to be dragged into too many rallies, but Masuda proved too strong as he has for many a player this season, and inflicted a 3-0 defeat on the Gazelle. Tom ‘The Housecat’ Paine suffered an early mishap in his match, seemingly asleep as the Imperial number two took the first game. Paine recovered to his usual half-asleep state however and raced through the next three games to secure the 4-1 win for Oxford. This put the team in high spirits heading into the afternoon match with Sheffield, who had been edged out 3-2 against Heriot Watt.
The match against Sheffield began how it was to end; with a tight five-setter. Captain Trott suffered a slow start against Rahul Bensal, before recovering to take the second game. A seeming lack of ability to play straight dropshots let him down in the later stages, as Bensal won the third. Trott came back to dominate the fourth game, but made some crucial forehand dropshot errors at 7-7 and 9-7 in the fifth to hand the win to Bensal, and give Sheffield the lead. Next up was Patrick against Lucas Hughes, the hard-working former junior with a penchant for intense stares and big swings. Patrick went on the underdog, and quickly realised that he was not going to beat Hughes the traditional way as Hughes stormed into an early lead. As arguments began early in the first game about the clearing of each player, Patrick began to work his way into the match, and into his opponent’s head, by playing highly unorthodox squash, mixing in countless reverse angle boasts and shots into the middle of the court, chipping up serves to the Hughes forehand, and using all of his 5 foot 10 (?) frame to jostle with the Sheffield player for control of the centre. As frequent arguments between the two raised the tension to new levels, Hughes seemed to suffer a collapse mentally, his failure to finish points handing Patrick the second and third games. As the fourth game progressed, the quality of squash increased, with some gut-busting rallies delighting the crowd that was slowly gathering around this match, before ending in heavy contact between the players and the inevitable contentious refereeing decision. This only served to increase the drama, as a fourth game tiebreaker ensued with everyone on the edge of their seats. After a few controversial decisions and choice words exchanged between player and referee, the Gazelle clinched the fourth 13-11 and complete a stunning performance of guile and mental strength to level the scores at 1-1. This performance captured the Man of the Match award for the Oxford man.
So the scores were level as James ‘The Greyhound’ McCouat stepped up at 5. The former Imperial player has suffered from poor organisation on the part of the team leadership, and played at 5 despite rising to number two in the university this term. He nonetheless delivered a consummate performance to dispatch his Sheffield counterpart 3-0, with his relentless retrieving and high intensity too much for his opponent. At the same time Sibley went up against Oscar Beach, the powerful Sheffield number three. Beach’s tidy length hitting was enough to go 2-0 up, but the Lone Rat mounted a comeback in the third, hitting the beautiful drives and drops that has stifled Tom Paine so often this season in challenge matches. To maintain such high-level squash however required a strong engine, and it was this that Sibley lacked as he began to tire, allowing Beach to reassert himself and take the match 3-1. Might Sibley’s famous diet of pure alcohol fed to him through a straw played a part in this drop off? We may never know, but the match was tied at 2 apiece. It was down to The Housecat to pull out a win against the rangy Sheffield number 2. This match was close all the way through, with neither player managing to get more than two points ahead for almost an hour as long slow-paced rallies set the tone. Paine’s infamous ‘old man’s squash’ came to the fore, with every other shot seemingly a lob, testing his opponent’s patience as well as strength. Naturally it went to a fifth game, as both players became visibly exhausted. It was the Sheffield man who finished the stronger though, reeling off five straight points from 6-6 with some delicate backhand dropshots to bring the victory home for Sheffield. A nail-biting match finished with the Blues distraught at having come so close to victory, but it was to be Sheffield’s day as they proved the stronger team in the tight moments.
After the match the team left for their hotel to think on the day’s events. A meal at the nearest pub was to be the cure for their woes, accompanied by a quick watch of The Greatest Dancer. The team had to gently remind an excitable Sibley that the man on the TV in the large hat was not in fact Pharrell Williams. Patrick departed to go back to Oxford for a night out, promising the team that he would return… probably… in time for the match tomorrow morning. The team were careful (apart from Patrick) to go light on the alcohol, for they knew that they would have to perform at their peak to get anything out of the match against Heriot Watt the next morning, as well as hope that other results went their way.
So it was with quiet hope that Oxford went to their morning match against Heriot Watt on Sunday, praying that Patrick would indeed get to the courts on time. These prayers were answered as the Gazelle arrived early, living off one hour’s sleep, but alive. His hungover presence was required to push everyone down the order. More good news greeted the team on their arrival at the courts, as the Heriot Watt team were without their number one, who had to pull out through injury, and all of the Scottish team seemed lethargic after their night out in Birmingham. The Blues were determined to make the most of their good fortune, and got off to a perfect start with a straightforward 3-0 victory for McCouat. This was followed by a seesaw encounter between Sibley and the burly Harry Barron, who appeared noticeably affected by his night-time celebrations. Barron pushed through a second-game blip with his powerful hitting, putting numerous winners past a tiring Sibley. Frequent errors accompanied these flashes of brilliance however, allowing Sibley a way back into the match, ensuring that it was tight up until the final moments. Another screaming winner secured the match 3-1 for Heriot Watt, levelling the tie. Captain Trott restored the lead for Oxford after winning a fiery encounter with his opponent, whose expression rarely seemed to change from a scowl throughout the match. The Scot was not afraid to push the Oxford man around, but The Flamingo kept his cool to keep his errors to a minimum while stretching his opponent into all four corners of the court, overcoming the onset of nerves to win 3-1. Patrick stepped on court against the young talent of Alasdair Prott aware not only that his opponent was very good, but also that he did not feel very good after so little sleep. It was perhaps a foregone conclusion therefore that Patrick would struggle, and he went down 3-0, suffering a bagel (11-0) in the third game. It was credit to the Gazelle that he managed to turn up at all after his night in Oxford, and he played his part by ensuring the rest of the team could play lower down the order.
So it was once again down to The Housecat to pull out a win for Oxford. Expectations were high after his opponent was thought to be injured, but this optimism soon dissipated as it became clear that the injury was not severe, and Oxford dropped the first game. Paine fought back however to edge the next two games 11-9, against vociferous Heriot Watt support from the Scottish team. The match became more and more bad tempered as both players struggled to move around each other, and some controversial refereeing decisions incensed the partisan crowd. The Heriot Watt player took another tight game 11-9 to set up a fifth game, upon which the final positions of the top three universities in the group rested. The tension reached extraordinary levels as physical contact became more and more frequent, and the atmosphere more and more ugly as the Scots made their displeasure at the referee known. It was to be two decisions at 8-9 and 9-9 that went Oxford’s way, allowing Paine to snatch victory for his team when his opponent hit the ball out of court. Oxford had stolen victory, much to the dismay of the Heriot Watt team, who made a swift exit. The Blues returned home filled with confidence ahead of the all-important Varsity match. While they may not have won any friends in this match, the Blues had managed to clinch fifth position with the win, finishing one point (!) ahead of Heriot Watt and two above Sheffield. A weekend filled with drama, emotion and no shortage of quality squash thus ended with Oxford achieving their objective of fifth position in the country. The team had proven that they could punch above their weight against teams who on paper would be favoured to beat them, with exceptional performances across the board proving Oxford’s place among the elite universities in the country.