Amateur ritual with City appeal

Today's University match will be watched by a world record crowd. Steve Bale reports

As there is seldom anything rational about the rugby that is played in the University match, still less about its outcome, it is more or less impossible to rationalise why so many otherwise rational people should wish to witness the annual Oxbridge ritual.

Even with rugby turning professional - and with it a new perceived threat to two resolutely amateur rugby academies - there appears to be nothing to mute the roaring success of an institution in the sporting calendar. The very fact that the newly floodlit Twickenham, now holding a maximum of 78,000, will be almost full for this afternoon's 114th enactment of an ancient rivalry is its own justification: a world record for a club match.

Yet when the Bowring Bowl was first put up by a City financial house in 1976 barely 20,000 were there - and that was a fair improvement on the all-time low of 17,000. There are now another 60,000, many of them supposedly decanting from the self-same City, who will be there to see (and doubtless be seen at) the Varsity match.

Ours not to reason why, and we can rest assured that for the participants it really will be a case of do or die - if not quite literally. Even Steve Cottrell, the New Zealander who withdrew on the day of last year's match and returned to Cambridge to win his Blue as captain, is experiencing the sensation and as a 28-year-old All Black trialist he has knocked about a bit.

The peril of professionalism is that the prospect of profit will dissuade would-be Blues from pursuing their studies: an anti-intellectual priority to which the City hordes about to descend on Twickenham would surely subscribe. With the consequent reduction in the quality of players would come a consequent reduction in the quality of the match and a consequent fall- off in the interest rate.

This, at any rate, is the theory, though recent University matches could be said already to have disproved it. Whatever, this year's Varsity captains refuse to believe that the lucrative opportunities rugby can now provide will reduce the allure of Oxbridge.

"Cambridge and Oxford are held in such high regard as universities that, even in today's changing environment, there will always be people who want to come for the sake of their education and enjoy their rugby at the same time," Cottrell said. "That's not going to change, no matter how much money clubs may be paying out."

His point is endorsed by the cosmopolitan composition of his own team - two New Zealanders, an Australian, two Welshmen and an Irishman combining with nine Englishmen - but even better by the Dark Blues', whose exotic melange of four South Africans, four Irishmen, two Canadians and the first Frenchman to play in a University match, not forgetting four Englishmen, reflects the international status of both the universities and the match.

Here, then, is an easy answer to the sceptics. Less easy is picking a winner, though the portents are precisely the opposite of 1994's when Oxford entered Twickenham on a wave of attacking rugby only to suffer the traditional lot of varsity favourites by losing a truly epic encounter. Cambridge now lead the series 52-48.

This year there is the direct comparison of the universities' recent results against Western Samoa, distinctly unflattering for Oxford who lost 47-15 as against Cambridge's 22-14 victory. "The favourites' and underdogs' tag is something the press centre on to build the match up," Tyrone Howe, the Dark Blues' captain, said. "Nevertheless, after the Samoan games it's inevitable that Cambridge will go in as fairly firm favourites." But no more inevitable than that Howe should say such a thing.

OXFORD v CAMBRIDGE

at Twickenham

P du Preez Keble 15 M Singer Homerton

S Rush Mansfield 14 D Casado St Edmund's

Q de Bruyn Keble 13 T Whitford Homerton

J Riondet Mansfield 12 S Cottrell St Edmund's, capt

T Howe Keble, capt 11 N Walne St Catherine's

D Humphreys St Cross 10 R Ashforth Peterhouse

M Butler St Edmund Hall 9 D Maslen St Edmund's

C Norton Hughes Hall 1 L Mooney Hughes Hall

K Svoboda Templeton 2 J Evans Homerton

D Penney Wolfson 3 N Holgate Robinson

N Basson St Cross 4 R Bramley St Edmund's

P Coveney New College 5 C Simpson Homerton

M Reilly St Anne's 6 M Hyde St Edmund's

R Yeabsley Keble 8 S Surridge Wolfson

M Orsler Christ Church 7 R Earnshaw St John's

Referee: A Spreadbury (England). Kick-off: 2.30 (BBC)

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