Rugby Union: Dark Blues the dark horses as Varsity attraction grows

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THE VARSITY MATCH moves into the next millennium still provoking controversy, still defying the doom-mongers and sticking up a proverbial two fingers to the revolutionaries of the professional era by taking more support to Twickenham - latest estimates hover around the 60,000 mark - than there was at the bulk of World Cup matches.

The backers of the Bowring Bowl, Marsh & McLennan Companies, have no doubt as to the actuarial risk of one of the last vestiges of amateurism in the game, so much so that they have ploughed in a further 20 per cent, taking their total cash input this season to an impressive pounds 210,000 and a sizeable advance on their original offering 24 years ago when, as Bowrings, they stumped up pounds 15,000.

The Oxford captain, Norman Celliers, is another in no doubt as to where the match stands in the modern game. "People in the United Kingdom should cherish this fixture more than they do," he said.

The Oxford scrum-half, Jamie Weston, actually turned down a professional rugby contract with Glasgow Caledonians in order to continue the amateur tradition. "I spoke to people like Gavin Hastings about coming here," explained Weston, who is up at Keble reading for an MSc in industrial relations. "He said to go for it. It is a fantastic tradition and it has a great pedigree of good players. And not everyone who is a good player has to be a professional these days. Some excellent players prefer to pursue different careers."

Sound stuff backed up by Tony Rodgers, who is proving to be as great a survivor as the fixture itself. He is in his 20th year as coach, and whether he carries on depends on the new Cambridge captain, who will be elected in the new year. However, Rodgers' unprecedented reign looks safe enough given that his side have lifted the Bowring Bowl for the past five years and, while he wants to regard Cambridge as being the underdogs, even he admits they have a pretty good side.

"Our captain, Angus Innes, is having a superb season, leading by example on the field." And those versed in Varsity matches agree that the Light Blues have some heavyweights, in terms of talent, up front.

"They look very good," said the Oxford coach, Steve Hill. "They are coming to Twickenham on the back of five previous wins there. We do not have a team of stars, just a bunch of talented guys who work well together." One of the Cambridge "stars" is at fly-half. Ken Iwabuchi has won a dozen caps for Japan. He plays outside the New Zealander Gregory Peacock, a member of the All Blacks' sevens squad.

The Light Blues have a further edge. They won the first skirmish when their choice for referee was rubber-stamped. Clayton Thomas was not the Light Blues' first choice, that was Ed Morrison, but since the Englishman took charge of last year's showdown the Rugby Football Union ruled him out. Oxford had wanted Scotland's Jim Fleming but an RFU panel gave Thomas the okay. That should not prevent the Dark Blues from doing their stuff. They are well aware Cambridge will want to sling the ball around a little once the forwards have established a platform, but the Dark Blues may yet turn out to be dark horses.

Oxford University: P J Graham (Caldew and Worcester); T E Beer (Eton and Regents Park), K D Shuman* (Pennsylvania

State Univ and Templeton), J C Kinniburgh (Sydney University and Oriel), S C J Danielli (Cheltenham and Trinity); S E S Fitzgerald (Eton and Balliol), E J W Weston (Heriot-Watt Univ and Keble); R P Lehner* (Univ of California, Berkeley and Kellogg), P J Nicholas (Oakham and Brasenose), A S Collins* (KES Bath and Lincoln), A H Russell (International School, Vienna and Magdelen), S A Miall (King's School Winchester and St Anne's), L C H Sheriff (Haileybury and St Anne's), N Celliers* (Univ of Stellenbosch and Keble, capt), D J Kelaher* (Sydney Univ and St Cross).

Cambridge University: G D Paulin (Wellington Univ and Hughes Hall); G R Williams* (Hinchingbrooke School and St Edmund's), A R Bidwell* (Brighton College and Hughes Hall), B Rudge (St Edward's College Liverpool and Queens'); R J W Morrow* (Royal School Dungannon and Hughes Hall); K Iwabuchi (Aogakuin Univ Tokyo and St Edmund's), G M Peacocke* (Otago Univ and Hughes Hall); J P Cooke (Marple Hall School and St Edmund's), J J Hamilton-Smith (Radley and Homerton), N J Hennessy (Corpus Christi, Cardiff and Homerton), H J M Innes* (Univ of Queensland and Hughes Hall), A R Innes* (Univ of Queensland and Hughes Hall, capt), T H J Mouton* (Univ of Stellenbosch and St Edmund's), M A Count (St Bartholomew's, Newbury and Jesus), M W D Haslett* (Royal Academy, Belfast and St Catharine's). (* denotes blue)

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).