No higher power on rugby league paddock

Geoff Hilton, priest, bowler and referee, is in charge of tonight's Varsity match. Dave Hadfield reports

The league equivalent of rugby union's University match might need divine intervention before it attracts the same degree of hype. This year it comes its closest yet to getting that helping hand.

Wielding the whistle at Richmond tonight will be Geoff Hilton, Catholic priest, crown green bowler and rugby league referee - a veritable renaissance man.

Fr Hilton played the game at stand-off and loose forward as a schoolboy in Swinton and later pounded the beat as a policeman in Salford. In 1982, he started the long process of re-training for the priesthood, playing union for an exiles' team in Rome by way of light relief.

"When I fractured my ankle in several places, I was asked by the bishop to retire, because I was having to have so much treatment," he said.

When he was ordained and returned to Salford, taking up a post as a hospital chaplain, he returned to his first love, refereeing in the North West Counties and later the Student Rugby League.

On top of his bowling activities - he competes on the notoriously hard-drinking, heavy-betting professional circuit known as the Panel and is good enough to have reached the final of the sport's second-biggest knock-out, the Talbot, last year - it makes for a hectic lifestyle, especially now that he has his own parish in Blackburn.

"If you have several interests, you have to find time," he said. "Obviously, if there's a clash between parish matters and sport, the parish matters have to come first. But I love being involved in sport."

Fr Hilton has become one of the student game's leading referees, taking charge of all their major finals.

"The student game has been making great strides. Standards have improved tremendously in the time that I have been involved. The Student World Cup last year was a very high standard and undoubtedly opened a lot of people's eyes."

A clerical involvement in rugby league is not unknown - Fr John Cootes played on the wing for Australia in 1969 and 1970 - but there can be special problems for a priest.

"I referee according to the laws of the game, not any higher authority," Fr Hilton said. "For instance, if players swear at each other I tend to ignore it. If it's directed at me, it's a different matter.

"Not that there's much of a problem in the student game. It's a very well-disciplined form of rugby."

He will hope that holds good tonight, when Oxford meet Cambridge in the Varsity match for the 16th time.

Oxford, who have lost three and drawn one of the last four encounters, have grounds for expecting to break their drought.

Under their new coach, the South African international, Nico Serfontein, the Dark Blues have hit their best form for years and have two players, the winger, Jonathan Parker, and their second-row, John Hobart, in the Great Britain squad.

But Cambridge, behind Oxford on points' difference at the top of their southern division of the SRL, still have their captain and scrum-half, Dave Green, who was outstanding in last year's clash, and Jonathan Griffiths, who played for Paris St Germain last season.

The game is being played in London on an evening during term for the first time, which should encourage a healthy attendance. Usurping that other affair at Twickenham might be a pious hope, but it must be theologically sound to observe that God loves a trier.

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