Rugby League: Breaking down the ancient barriers: Paul Hayward reports from Crystal Palace on a Varsity match without a trace of snobbery

THREE coachloads of students from Oxford and Cambridge came up with a novel excuse for missing lectures yesterday. 'We're going down to London for the Rugby League Varsity Match,' they told their tutors. In the league of dubious apologies, it would have ranked with: 'A dog ate my essay.'

And yet it was true. Fisherman's jumpers were hauled on and striped college scarves were thrown round young necks as the league game made further inroads into snobbery at the two ancient universities. It was a typical Varsity audience for a distinctly untypical Varsity game, a game still popularly associated with the North and its most iron- souled pastimes. Who said the class system lingers on?

Think of it as Twickers without the City slickers. No tailgating, no corporate hospitality, just a collection of simultaneously bookish and brawny converts to rugby league crashing into each other on the pitch at Crystal Palace with IQ-lowering fervour. Whatever the problems of the professional game - and the hardness of this pitch showed what summer rugby might entail for players' legs - the student version is thriving at colleges as far apart as Exeter and Newcastle.

The organisers of yesterday's game - which ended in an easy 50-18 win for the Light Blues - are the first to acknowledge the irony of a league Varsity match prospering amid the supposed social elitism of Oxbridge. They say that people assume two things about the players: either they must be middle-class kids slumming it in search of street credibility, or else they are all products of northern comprehensive schools who have fought their way through the system and are attempting to preserve a connection with their origins.

Neither image is accurate. In both sides yesterday were pupils from comprehensives, grammar schools and leading fee-paying institutions like St Paul's, Radley and Millfield. Adam Walliker, one of the Cambridge substitutes, listed his Alma Mater as the 'Arthur Daley Grammar School', which may have been appropriate in view of the fact that Oxford were thoroughly fleeced by Cambridge here.

'The first image we had to dispel was the cloth cap and whippets one,' Neil Tunnicliffe, of the student rugby league body, said. Nor was it easy, in the late 1970s, to persuade the sour guardians of rugby union at Oxbridge to allow a rival code to emerge, because in its early manifestations the league game was actually banned at Oxford. Simon Roberts, a union Blue, was forced to play as Robert Simons in the 1984 league Varsity match to circumvent the many barriers placed in his way by authority.

Now, there are 45 student teams and four national sides playing under league rules, so the development that the union administrators sought to stem is beyond the reach of such selfishness. David Oxley, the chairman of the Student Rugby League, said of the 13th Oxford- Cambridge encounter: 'To beat, or, heaven forbid, be beaten by the Other Place is all.'

Doubtless this was another sentiment recited to irate tutors.

OXFORD UNIVERSITY: M Sandys; I Onyejiaka, C Edmunds, P Simpson, A Dormandy; J Davies, J Masters; P Naudi, N Wood (capt), P Dixon, P Harrison, R Bradburn, B Bailey.

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: G Bird; J Marchant, A Arentsen, G Curran, R King (capt); A Spencer, D Maslen; J Duckworth, D Downham, A McDonald, A McCarken, P Cheveley, I O'Dwyer.

(Photograph omitted)