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December 2012

Varsity Blues
6th December 2012

And now for something completely different. Four of the six Monty Pythons studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities  but not even their hyperactive imaginations could  apply their famous catchphrase to the annual rugby encounter between their alma maters. Certainly not when they were undergraduates back in the sixties. Definitely not when they were at the height of their creative powers. They could now.

Over the last three Saturdays England  have pitted themselves against the top three teams in the world, the only nations other than themselves to have lifted the game’s ultimate prize. Twickenham has, especially in Saturday’s astonishing, glorious and record-breaking victory against New Zealand, pulsated to the power of professional rugby. This Thursday, as the Varsity Match takes centre stage in the old cabbage patch, it will march to the beat of an ancient and essentially amateur drum.

The players thrusting their way through Saturday’s crowd in the West Car Park were  geared up - from the headphones around their necks as they entered the changing-room to the GPS receivers in their shirts as they took to the field with every conceivable piece of hi-tech computer equipment and hi-vis sponsored clothing in between. They were genned up -  with a mound of information and advice from coaches, physios, dieticians and doctors to process, as well as the contents of their own team’s playbook and a comprehensive computer analysis of anything the opposition might throw at them. They were beefed up - a combination of protein , power shakes and an unforgiving  training regime ensures that modern rugby players are unimaginably bigger, bulkier and more muscle-bound than their predecessors. They were hyped up - by a mass media anxious to feed the public’s insatiable appetite for the sayings, doings and thoughts  of anybody remotely qualifying as a celebrity. And, in comparison to most sportsmen of their stature and standing and all but a handful of their contemporaries, they are well paid. Rugby is their life and , especially on days like Saturday, a pretty good one at that.

The players making that same nerve-shredded journey on Thursday are not  at the opposite end of the pay scale. They’re not on it at all. They, like the overwhelming majority of the 2.5 million rugby players in this country, are amateur. Like every other member of the 340 university teams in England  they are living off grants , student loans and generous contributions from the  bank of  Mum and Dad. They have to fit training and playing around their studies and they’re not so much bothered by play-books as by text-books. They are not even household names in their own colleges and even though they too have hundreds of gym-hours under their belts, they look, act and move like normal human beings. Rugby is only a part of their lives and, even in the context of Thursday’s all-consuming fixture, only a part.  

The gulf between Saturday’s hard-core professional and Thursday’s old-school amateur is an ever-widening chasm. Not so long ago, it didn’t exist .Oxford and Cambridge were major forces in rugby. Others could complain  that individual representation on the RFU  gave the two universities disproportionate influence  and too many plum fixtures against Wallaby, Springbok  and All Black touring teams but they couldn’t discount the contribution Oxbridge made to the international game - at the last count over 600 Blues have played for their countries and nearly 100 have represented the British and  Irish Lions.

When rugby was, certainly by comparison to the modern game, slow and stodgy. Oxbridge players  prided themselves on being faster, fitter  and quicker of thought than plodding club opponents. A virtuous circle was created. Six out of the seven backs In the Cambridge team I joined in 1974 had played for their country or would soon do so. Before us were the likes of Welshman Clem Thomas and Ireland’s Mike Gibson. After came Rob Andrew and Gavin Hastings.

The Varsity Match itself occupied a unique place in the rugby calendar. In the days when autumn internationals had the rarity of hens’ teeth, and the Six Nations’ was only Five, it could be one of only three big matches staged at Twickenham all year. As such, it was venerated by the BBC  and appropriated by generations of schoolboys who for often the most obscure of reasons adopted a lifelong and passionately tribal allegiance to either the light or the dark blue. In the days before league rugby, when historical tradition and geographical proximity were  more important in determining a fixture-list than playing ability or competitive merit, the Varsity Match provided a narrative for the first half of the season. The top clubs didn’t necessarily play against each other but enough of them took on Oxford and Cambridge in the autumn to give the media and, just as importantly, the national selectors an idea of the talent that might be available come the Five Nations.

For a long time the Match was deemed even more important than an England trial. I’ve still got the cuttings  from the weeks preceding my first two Varsity Matches. The national selectors may have picked me, and two or three team-mates, but as the Varsity match - then played on a Tuesday - was only three days later, no-one expected us either to take part in the trials or to be penalized for doing so.. 

Not so long ago national selectors wouldn’t have dreamed of missing the Varsity Match. Now they wouldn’t give it a second thought. But, if it has little relevance to the modern professional game , it can still still - like the Paralympics to the Olympics - be mutually beneficial. The marketeers are already proclaiming it the ‘greatest Amateur Rugby Match in the World” . The thousands thronging to Twickenham on Thursday - whether in thrall to childhood loyalties, keen to catch up with old friends or anxious to witness a type of rugby where wit, imagination flair and intelligence can be  given their head - are hoping they’re right.