OXFORD University put in a spirited and honourable display, but a touch of international quality proved the difference in a 26-20 defeat at home to World Cup hopefuls Canada.

The lure of a side ranked 23rd on the planet had attracted a packed crowd, estimated to be around the 1,500 mark, on a chilly Halloween evening and the rugby did not disappoint.

A committed performance saw the students trail by a point at half-time, thanks to Jasper Dix’s try.

But they were undone by Canada’s fast-start after the break as scrum half Gordon McRorie pulled the strings in a 25-minute period which heralded two tries and ultimately decided the contest.

The students refused to give in, though, and were awarded a penalty try in the last play which their performance fully deserved.

The Dark Blues headed into the fixture on the back of a four-match winning run at home, averaging 51 points per game.

But Canada, who are in Oxford on a training camp ahead of three World Cup qualifying matches, provided them with their toughest test yet ahead of next month’s Varsity Match.

Captain Dom Waldouck returned to the squad but was only named on the bench, while George Robson, Dix, Sam Miller, Joe Morris and Tom Stileman all started.

Oxford had previously shown their try-scoring ability in dominant victories against the Pacific Islanders and the Royal Navy, but defensive discipline was expected to be the key tonight.

The students made a great start, only to wastefully overthrow a third-minute lineout on Canada’s five-metre line.

But the visitors were unable to get out of their half and Oxford were rewarded for their fast start through a Tom Humberstone penalty on seven minutes.

Canada responded quickly and piled the pressure on the home side, who resisted phase after phase on their own five-metre line.

But the visitors eventually found a gap, McRorie finding Matt Evans with a fine back-of-the-hand pass for the winger to go over on 15 minutes, Shane O’Leary converting.

Oxford needed to react well to conceding and they hit back just moments later.

Sam Miller broke a tackle before Stileman was stopped just short, but second-row Dix bundled over from close range to the elation of a packed Iffley Road and the Dark Blues replacements. Humberstone added the extras to make it 10-7 to the hosts.

There was to be no immediate reaction from Canada this time, Oxford defending superbly in the middle of the pitch to take control of proceedings.

And they made territory count on 29 minutes when a Humberstone penalty made it 13-7.

Canada have never failed to qualify for a World Cup and within seconds of conceding they were hammering on the student’s try-line.

Oxford’s impressive defensive showing continued and full back Ben Ransom caught O’Leary’s cross-field kick which looked destined to result in a try for right-wing Evans.

But the visitors’ pressure told on 36 minutes when No8 Luke Campbell spotted a gap and dived over, O’Leary converting, to make it 14-13 at half-time.

Despite trailing at the break, the students would have been heartened by their performance which evidently showed they were more than up for the test.

They would have also been pleased with the way they initially resisted Canada’s barraging start to the second period, winning a scrum against the head, before Ransom was first in a foot race with McRorie to collect Doug Fraser’s grubber.

Oxford had made one change at the break, Waldouck replacing Dan Barley at outside centre, but they could do nothing to stop a fine try on 54 minutes when replacement Guiseppe du Toit traded passes with the excellent McRorie to cross, O’Leary converting to make it 21-13.

The students had competed well for just under an hour and they were forced to defend their try-line again as Canada pushed for another score, which would have arrived had O’Leary’s miss-pass not fallen just short of Evans.

Oxford were forced to defend wave after wave of attack and, after they were sucked in to the centre of the pitch, the ball was quickly spread wide for Evans to cross for his second of the evening. O’Leary’s conversion attempt went just wide as the international side extended their lead to 13 points with 15 minutes remaining.

The Dark Blues ended the match on top and they were able to mark a committed and encouraging display against a strong side with their second score when the they were awarded a penalty try in the last play.

Oxford University: Ransom, Stileman, Barley, Kearns, David, Humberstone, Tresidder, Parker, Henry, Morris, Robson, Dix, Pozniak, Miller, Kerneis. Reps: Navarajasegaran, Oswal, Hennessy, Warr, Adams, Ridgway, McGagh, Jackson, Waldouck.

Canada: Povey, Moor, Fraser, Blevins, Evans, O’Leary, McRorie, Barker, Howard, Keith, Ciulini, Larsen, Sheppard, Rumball, Campbell. Reps: Barkwill, Buydens, Ilnicki, Wadden, Heaton, du Toit, Mack, Lloyd, Sauder, Le Sage.