By Matt Styles
For the first two terms of this academic year, students were starved of sporting action, but for over a month now college sport has returned in all its glory as the various mini-leagues draw to a close. Despite no student spectators, fresh Covid concerns, and admission to Maiden Castle now requiring a bi-weekly assault on one’s tonsils with a plastic stick, the halcyon days have largely returned for outdoors sports; made sweeter by some unfamiliar sunny conditions. Speaking to captains of rugby, mixed lacrosse, football, and hockey, a sense of relief could be gauged following its long-awaited return.
Caitlin Bonpun, captain of Cuth’s A Women’s Rugby, reflects on how fundamental it is to the wider student experience. She told Palatinate, “college sport to me IS the Durham collegiate experience, it’s an easy and fun access to a large variety of people and activities, and fosters the strong sense of community felt within Durham. Particularly in such an alienating time as a global pandemic, college sport’s loss was sorely felt, as that sense of family and team spirit is so essential; some lively rugby is a fantastic way of blowing off exam season steam!”
Her side won one and drew two in the condensed Division 1 season to top the group, though were limited to touch rugby due to Covid-19, with ten-a-side teams playing three 10 minute thirds and a tackle policy of two-touches. Despite yearning a return to contact Bonpun looked on the bright side, believing that ‘the team and coaches have been great at adapting to this new style of play’ and that this revised format makes for an easier introduction to rugby for those who have never played.
Teams are, by and large, happy to adapt and compromise given their love for college sport and the incredible social side that comes with it, so much so that more than twenty first years showed up to the early training sessions in the pouring rain. Beyond the sport, as Bonpun points out, it is crucial to a wider college spirit and meeting new people that can define your university experience.
“After so long without playing, it’s easy to forget the strong sense of community and family you get through college sports, even more so from a small tight-knit team like Women’s rugby.
“Although I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, my favourite part of being back has been meeting the freshers and getting back in touch with a wider range of Cuth’s years-wide. It has been very rewarding seeing the Cuth’s spirit revived and passed on to the next team.”
Grey A co-captain Theo Phillips echoed a similar sentiment about the level of first-year engagement this term, and the lively social presence that has been fostered.
“I’ve been struck by how keen freshers, in particular, are to get stuck in to not only training and matches, but the pub afterwards which has made for a really good atmosphere both on and off the field.” He pays particular gratitude to the Amstel tap at Whitechurch, which “has been so crucial for maintaining team morale.”
Despite a loss to Hatfield in the opening fixture of their five-game mini-league, they responded strongly with a hard-fought win over Hild Bede, which came before a 7-1 dismantling of league favourites Collingwood A. On a dramatic final day last weekend, they defeated Van Mildert A 4-1, as Collingwood beat title rivals, Hatfield, to seal the Premiership crown.
Speaking after their success, Phillips praised the competitiveness of the mini-league format. “The sport itself has been great. Taking the five generally strongest college hockey teams has made for a really competitive mini-league and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and the benefit of being a smaller college sport is a cup competition in the final weeks of term.”
Since joining Durham in 2017 Phillips has been an active participant in college sport and will miss it dearly when he graduates. He reflected, “college sport has been the best way of meeting people throughout my time at Durham and offers an almost unique opportunity to be involved in sport no matter how good, bad, or average you are. It has, without doubt, created the majority of my defining memories of my time here.”
Sam Cavey captains Van Mildert A, who have stormed to two victories from two against 2020 Floodlit finalists Aidan’s A, and 2019 Premiership winners Collingwood B. This weekend they face up against perennial title challengers Collingwood A, in what will be a thrilling league decider.
“We’re really enjoying the league even in this format,” says Cavey, “it is definitely the best possible format which the University could have used to provide everyone with football, which is what we really care about.”
After a tedious year of “lone running, home workouts and only communicating to each other through Strava”, he and his team are delighted to be back playing college sport. “Being able to get out and do something different has been really refreshing and makes us more motivated to keep the fitness up. Team sport and playing together has been a nice change and made exercise much more enjoyable.”
Cavey, a third-year, is also sentimental about college sport as he nears the end of his Durham journey. “I’ve made some of my best mates at university through the team. It’s a great way for different years to integrate and get to know each other which would otherwise be difficult during this isolating year. Football always provides a good stress release and get-away from everything else, so it has been great to have it during the pandemic and exams especially.”
He and his team shall be looking to crown their university experience with some silverware in the Floodlit Cup, which got underway last weekend.
In a limiting and tantalising year for finalists in particular, it is important that captains engage new students and lay down strong foundations for the future. Grey A captain Seraphina Monson has done just that.
She has guided her mixed lacrosse side to glory in their three-game Premiership mini-league, having beaten Collingwood, Castle, and Mary’s. Beaming with pride over her team’s success, she praised the University’s handling of college sport’s return and has enjoyed the unorthodox format.
“I feel that in the circumstances, with just one rather than two terms in which to play, a mini-league is a good solution to getting competitive match-play time with a decisive winner at the end, unlike the season which was cut short due to the first lockdown last year.”
It is not only the on-field success that is important for Monson but the wider health of the club. It has been alive and kicking this year with strong turnouts and a positive social atmosphere, so much so that there was enough interest to form a C team this year. Despite a considerable gap from the first taster session in October and first matches in May, she believes that “Grey’s enthusiasm for lacrosse is undaunted!”.
Besides the regular exercise, sunny weather, and playing the sport she loves, the social aspect has been the most refreshing. “Being able to see my teammates again as well as to meet some new recruits while enjoying playing lacrosse has been a highlight of the lifting of restrictions. Since sport is such a mood-booster, it’s been great to intersperse the physical, mental and social benefits of training and college matches with the stress of summatives after a long lockdown.
“I think college sport is one of the best things about being at Durham, because the college system itself is a great way to meet people, including in different years. I’ve really enjoyed both college and Uni sport throughout my time at Durham, with socials being a particular bonus.”
Image: Theo Phillips