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What UCLA Beating Oxford Means

irish rugby tours

What UCLA Beating Oxford Means

UCLA vs Oxford. Sofia McMasters and Herman Goo photo.

In amongst all the playoff rugby and bowl games, UCLA played a little match against Oxford University last week.

The Bruins welcomed Oxford University on the Blues’ tour of the USA. The tour also included MLR team XVs, but the marquee game (for us at GR World Headquarters at least) was against UCLA. 

This Oxford team was a solid group of players, featuring cadré of Blues as well as those challenge for Blues places. Oxford University’s rugby team draws from many colleges and so has a large group of players, plays against men’s club teams as well as collegiate teams. College rugby in the UK is not the same as college rugby in the USA—there aren’t really eligibility rules and graduate students can play, so it’s not apples to apples. But this was a very, very capable (if jet-lagged) Oxford team that faced off with UCLA in Los Angeles.

In the end, UCLA won 20-12. It was a very impressive showing from the Bruins, who have perhaps their biggest and grouchiest tight five in recent memory.

The game started with with UCLA on the front foot and after a penalty and a lineout the forwards bashed their way toward the line. it wasn’t flashy, but the Bruins could be accused in recent years of trying to be a bit too flashy. Instead, this was about leveraging UCLA’s advantage. 

Finally, Ozzy Ross powered over and UCLA had a 5-0 lead.

This scoreline remained at 5-0 for quite some time. Oxford could not just blast through the UCLA line and the deep three of Josh Cox, Jonah Candelaria, and Niko Cotessis were very good in handling the Oxford kicking game.

Finally Oxford did indeed reply and they were able to break through to equalize. But UCLA responded well. Cox countered nicely on a kick and the Bruins were quick to win rucks and move the ball. Eventually Cox found himself as the first receiver and popped a kick wide for Candelaria. The wing somehow gathered the ball and slung the ball back infield for No. 8 Logan Turner to pick up and take over for the score.

It was a lovely-looking try and it put UCLA up 10-5.

But Oxford responded, keeping it simple and direct and punishing a UCLA penalty to slam it over and convert to take the lead 12-10.

This is where UCLA might have folded a little said to themselves “we had a good run, but now they’re going to take the game.”

Not so fast. Scrumhalf Oskar Bulstrode slotted a nicely-taken penalty goal to budge UCLA into the lead, and then the final movement came.

The Bruins ran a fairly simple attack in which most of their efforts were a one-pass-and-go plan. Nothing fancy, but they worked very hard to get there and with several players making the gainline. Eventially they blasted over with Luke Marshall going the honors. 

That did it. Cox converted and it was 20-12. They Bruins closed it out nicely from there.

For Head Coach Harry Bennett the win was a chance to show that this was a different UCLA rugby team.

“A lot of it was about the players rising to to occasion,” said Bennett. “None of them had played in an atmosphere like that before; certainly not against a team with the reputation and history over Oxford. The fact that we did that and the boys played and were as resilient as they were, playing for a full 80 minutes, is really what stuck with me.”

The Bruins also executed the game plan. They dealt with Oxford’s kicking game (Cox was outstanding and was named player of the game). Their lineout was all kinds of trouble for Oxford’s. They stultified Oxford’s maul.

“We knew we had to win the battle of the trenches,” said Bennett. “But to see our boys getting off the line and do what they did is something people haven’t seen from UCLA rugby, perhaps ever. We’ve had these superstar individual athletes in the past but our reputation is we’re not deep and we don’t have a lot of size in the tight five.”

But to win they had to win the physical battle, and with Will Sherman and Jack Pargetter in the second row leading the way they did just that.

It was a momentous win, but it can’t be the be-all and end-all.

“From an on-field perspective it’s motivating and inspiring for our players,” said Bennett. “It shows everything we’ve been working on. But we can’t rest on our laurels. Ultimately this is not the highlight of our season. We have a lot of other big games to play.”

UCLA has an ambitious schedule that include Cal, GCU, Central Washington, Saint Mary’s, and Arizona. It all starts with the Storer Classic and that’s a big focus for the Bruins, too.

And while Bennett hopes the Oxford result inspired the alumni to back a program that just pulled off a big win, the players themselves simply are remembering that they were overlooked for a D1A playoff spot last spring and they need to get back there.

“The guys carry the memory of missing the playoffs last year,” said Bennett. “And in the end a really bad performance against GCU cost us, as well as letting that game against Arizona slip. We keep that memory fresh in our minds because it reminds us that every game counts. And that’s what happened with Oxford and what we’ve got to remember, is that the entire theme for this year is being an 80-minute team. We do that and our destiny’s in our own hands.”