Rugby Union: A ritual losing its meaning

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THIRTY or so years ago the match which is being played at Twickenham this afternoon would have been followed by the announcement of the teams for the first England trial. It was called Whites v Coloureds, and it was held at Blundellsands.

Half the backs on display, and one or two forwards, would come from Oxford or Cambridge. In 1964, for example, the Cambridge centre pairing, David Rosser and Geoffrey Frankcom, went on to play the ensuing international season for England.

Those days have long gone. They were a consequence partly of the war and national service afterwards (which meant an older undergraduate population), partly of the disorganisation of English club rugby at the time.

With students growing younger, and entrance requirements becoming higher, it was confidently predicted that the University match would fade away. Wilfred Wooller, still going strong at 81, would regularly lament in programme notes and newspaper articles that he would never have been admitted to Cambridge at all if current admissions criteria had been applied. The old war horse may underestimate himself, for he is a provocative writer.

The development which Wooller and others predicted did not occur. Of the England side who defeated New Zealand, four - Rob Andrew, Philip de Glanville, Victor Ubogu and Tony Underwood - came from Oxford or Cambridge.

Other current performers from the senior universities include Stuart Barnes, Alan Buzza, Fran Clough, Adrian Davies, Huw Davies, Mike Hall, Gavin Hastings, Rory Jenkins, Chris Oti, Chris Sheasby and Rob Wainwright. I am sorry if I have omitted anyone, but that's enough old Blues. Andrew Harriman has retired, though I should like to have seen England play him on the right wing in the Five Nations' Championship.

The universities responded in their respective traditional ways to the difficulties caused by the lowering of the undergraduate age. Oxford recruited from overseas, as they had always done. Cambridge looked to post-graduate students, chiefly from Durham and East Anglia.

The land economy course at Cambridge proved an attractive option for ambitious rugby players. At both universities, new colleges were being founded which turned out to be welcoming to sportsmen, such as St Edmund's at Cambridge. At both universities the former women's colleges, notably St Anne's at Oxford, threw open their doors to men, benefiting rugby players at least.

At the same time, the whole culture of corporate hospitality helped not only to keep the fixture alive but even to increase its liveliness. People began to arrive at the match who had no connection with our ancient universities and even less with rugby football. The expensive picnic consumed in uncomfortable positions became a sign of the times.

Those times were the hard, ostentatious, ostensibly prosperous 1980s. It remains to be seen whether the match can survive the more straitened and sober 1990s. It may be significant that, of the players mentioned above, Blues were won by Andrew in '82, '83 and '84, by Barnes in '81, 82 and '83, by Huw Davies in '80 and '81, by Hastings in '84 and '85 and by Oti in '86 and '87.

It may be that the predictions which were wrongly made of the 1970s and 1980s will come true in the 1990s, and that the university match will go the way of the Boat Race, or the Oxford v Cambridge match at Lord's - a national ritual, of no real interest to anybody.

There are already signs that this may be happening. Even 10 years ago the sports pages, for the past month, would have been full of speculation about today's match, captains' troubles with injured players, and so forth.

This year I have read hardly a line. Nor have I seen either side in action. This neglect, by me and my colleagues alike, has been caused by the New Zealand tour and by the Courage Division One. Nevertheless, I think there may be deeper forces at work, and that this afternoon we shall be looking at an increasingly meaningless annual show.