Tom Picillo offers a deep dive into the events of the latest rugby varsity match, which saw Exeter triumph 26–21 over bitter rivals Loughborough University.
Packed trains to Digby chock-full of singing supporters, last-minute ticket requests from desperate students on Facebook, and the launching of pints into the air at full time, leaving a bitter stench of lager soaked into the quarter zips of onlooking fans. That’s how you know it’s Rugby Varsity Night in Exeter!
Exeter University Rugby Club, who have played exceptional rugby all year long, would come into their first home varsity since 2020 sitting second in BUCS Super Rugby, having lost just two games all season. Much to EURFC’s anxiety, though, one of those two defeats came at the hands of Loughborough University, the side travelling to Devon for the night.
Loughborough, the world’s number one ranked sports university, have endured a sub-optimal season. Sitting third in BUCS Super Rugby might not sound like a disaster, but the side who have seen England internationals Freddie Steward and Dan Kelly come through their ranks in recent years would be disappointed to be suffering another campaign unlikely to result in silverware and the sweet scent of champagne.
A sold-out Sandy Park would await both sides on a crisp evening in East Exeter. The stadium’s regular tenants, former European champions Exeter Chiefs, currently employ Exeter alumni Henry Slade, Jack Maunder, Richard Capstick, and Sam Skinner. The latter regularly starts for Scotland and captained EURFC to BUCS glory when they secured the championship back in 2016. The progression from university rugby to a professional club and international career would be the carrot every player in green would need. Especially knowing that former Exeter University coach and current Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, was observing keenly from the hospitality suite.
In the nervous minutes before kick-off, it would be the cheerleaders, the Exeter Emeralds, who would entertain Sandy Park first. Debuting a new green and white uniform for the first time in ten years, The Emeralds put on an exceptional performance, much to the delight of the 4000 cheering fans viewing from the main stand.
Then came the action. Loughborough, sporting an all-purple kit, came charging out of the tunnel first, triggering boos echoing from the grandstand. The reception for Exeter was quite the contrary, paraded by the Emeralds with cheers, whistles and applause for the boys dressed in their olive green and chalk white kit. The referee blew his whistle, Alec Lloyd-Seed punted a ball into the Loughborough half, and with that, we were underway.
Just five minutes on the clock, and it was to be a stunted start for Exeter. Max Bliss received a yellow card and was ushered to the sin bin, having taken out Ben Fitzgerald off-the-ball after the Loughborough winger attempted a dinked kick past the Exeter full-back. Exeter would persist with a one-man deficit for the next ten minutes.
In the next few moments, the decision-making of Exeter was questioned when the greens opted to kick for touch as opposed to attempting a kick at goal despite being a man down. The home side would silence their critics when Chris Moore’s line-out became a maul. Will Yarnell then sprayed the ball left after some forceful phase play, finding Tom Hitchcock. Passing the ball down the line, eventually seeking out England youth international Arthur Relton on the left flank where the U20 Six Nations grand slam winner would receive and dive over the try line, scoring the first of the game before being embraced by the Exeter substitutes. A well-taken conversion from Lloyd-Seed would make it Exeter 7-0 Loughborough.
Just five minutes later, Exeter would retake advantage, this time with all fifteen greens back on the floodlit pitch. Arthur Relton, Exeter’s attacking spark, would be responsible for further damage inflicted on the Loughborough side after his Antoine Dupont-esque footwork created space for Max Bliss to lay off for Jordan Bond. Continuing this French analogy, Bond would act as Relton’s Damian Penaud, scoring in a similar position to Relton, putting Exeter twelve points ahead.
The Exeter steamroller would encounter its first obstacle on the twenty-five-minute mark when Loughborough scored their first try of the night following a driven maul. Ollie Ashworth would be the man to plant the ball on the try line, and Charlie Titcombe converted.
A quieter second quarter meant EURFC entered half-time 19-7 up against Loughborough. The Emeralds would shine again with another scintillating routine.
The second half started much like the first, with Exeter drawing first blood in the second forty minutes. Exeter, who had infiltrated the Loughborough try line, couldn’t ground the ball, so a scrum would be called on the ten-metre line. Tom Addison’s creative control of the ball at the rear of the scrum gave the Exeter Number Eight the chance to pick the ball up off the back of the set play and score despite the optimistic attempt by Charlie Titcombe to prevent him. Lloyd-Seed converted well with his right boot.
Any early celebrations from Exeter supporters were soon halted. Soon after, Loughborough utilised their driving maul again to score via Jack Bertinet, converted by Titcombe. And just seven minutes later, Loughborough would score another when Teddy Leatherbarrow bundled over the line, converted again by Charlie Titcombe, crucially putting the midlands side in the lead for the first time on the night.
The final try of the night would be the winning one, and it would go the way of Exeter. With an Exeter maul darting towards the try line with fifteen minutes remaining, Loughborough attempted to stop it illegally, resulting in a penalty try for Exeter, which initiated jubilation around Sandy Park.
It wouldn’t be long until the final play was called, and with Exeter winning a line-out, EURFC knew they had very nearly completed their assignment. Tom Addison booted the ball out of play from the back of the ruck, and Exeter won the Varsity 26-21!
Ecstasy. Elation. Euphoria for Exeter.
Exeter: Jacob Morris, Chris Moore, Fin Richardson, Milo Hallam, Matt Cook, Luke Bralsford, Olly White, Tom Addison, Will Yarnell, Alec Lloyd-Seed, Arthur Relton, Tom Hitchcock, Dan John, Jordan Bond, Max Bliss
Substitutes Used: Jared Williams, Harvey Dunn, Arthur Thomas, Cameron Bullard, Josh Barton, Charlie McCaig
Substitutes Unused: Luke Bury, Niall Armstrong
Loughborough: Calum Smyth, Nathan Langdon, Jack Rowntree, David Douglas-Bridge, Tobias Munday, Dan Eckersley, Ollie Ashworth, Ben Smith, Tom Miles, Charlie Titcombe, George Barber, Josh Lewis, Nathan Pope, Ben Fitzgerald, Dan Martin
Substitutes: Joe Plunkett, Bryn Davies, Jack Bertinet, Toby Adlington, Tom Bloomer, Teddy Leatherbarrow, Iwan Burgwin, Reece Malone