Rugby Union: Old comrades turned rival Blues fully prepared to exploit showcase

As rugby union hurtles into the the professional world the Varsity match remains one of the last bastions of the amateur game. But amid the rugger buggers at Twickenham today David Llewellyn finds two young men chasing a dream of professionalism.

Take two men, one an aspiring solicitor, the other in the foothills of a medical career and ask them what they would like to do when they leave university and you might be surprised.

While the majority of the twentysomethings who step out at Twickenham today for the Varsity match will regard it as the pinnacle of their personal rugby mountain, at least two players, one on each side, have a very different view.

Cambridge University's centre, Mark Denney, is currently reading Law at St Edmund's College with the intention of becoming a solicitor; Oxford University's tight-head prop, Adam Reuben, is studying for a Diploma in Medical Studies, having graduated MBChB from Bristol University, he still has to complete his two pre-registration jobs as a surgical and medical house officer.

Both professions have carefully structured career paths; both have entailed long and demanding academic study in very competitive fields; it is unthinkable that anyone would do more than contemplate putting the promise of such jobs for life on to the back-burner.

But that is what Denney and Reuben hope to do. Both men are keen to dip their toes in professional rugby and are prepared to tread water as far as their `real' careers are concerned. So for these two former Bristol University team-mates this afternoon's tussle for the Bowring Bowl represents a gilt-edged opportunity to turn the headquarters of English rugby into a showcase, a shop window in which to parade their skills for anyone who might be interested.

Neither plans to dive headfirst into the game's murky professional waters, however. They would both prefer to compromise by becoming part-time players, thus allowing them the opportunity to stay in touch with the real world, which is where their long-term ambitions lie.

Denney has already tasted pay-for-play as a professional with Bristol and he is fairly dismissive of it. "I've really enjoyed coming back into amateur rugby from the professional game," says the 22-year-old History graduate. "At least I'm no longer sitting around for long periods of the day wondering what I'm going to do next."

Reuben too has had a sniff of the pro game, albeit with differing views.

"Before I came up to Oxford I was with Cardiff for a couple of months; it was only pre-season, when a couple of their props were unavailable for various reasons, but I was paid, and I played in the match against Brive and I enjoyed the life, what little I saw of it.

"Cardiff have encouraged me to stay in touch and see how things are after Christmas but with the depth they have - they have four international props - I'd be reluctant to go back just to play second team rugby or sit on the bench."

Denney still has two years of Law followed by a further 12 months at Law School, he has holiday work lined up and while he says the firm are sympathetic he knows he has to be pragmatic. "There is a certain challenge off the field, which is that I have to accommodate and combine these two careers. Playing rugby as a part-time professional would be ideal," he admits.

For Reuben, two years Denney's senior, things are not so clear-cut. He cannot postpone his pre-registration year for much longer. He has to find a balance. "I've spent five years at med school and I wouldn't want to think that I've done all that for nothing. Anyway I certainly would not tie myself permanently to professional rugby," he said.

He could ask his scrum-half Dr Niall Hogan for advice, but says: "Niall has already done his pre-registration. He is at a different stage, although I think he intends putting his medical career on the back burner while he establishes himself as Ireland's first choice.

"My plan at the moment is to do my house jobs next year. Of course if I do that then I will have to give up rugby during that time, because it is not possible to continue playing a decent standard of rugby when, as a house officer, you are working for 80, 90 or a 100 hours a week. Ideally I would like to go part-time and at least combine some degree of medical studies with a professional rugby career."

Denney voices the mission: "It is just a case of finding a club that is prepared to work along those lines. I doubt very much if I will be going back to Bristol. They haven't contacted me at all this year."

And so to the means to that end. Finding the club. Reuben says, quite candidly: "I am hoping the Varsity match will be a showcase for me."

Denney agrees, adding: "I regard the Varsity match very much as an opportunity for me to show what I can do."

Today all 30 - and the replacements - will want to show what they can do in front of a sell-out 75,000 crowd.

Cambridge, winners for the last three years and with an overall superiority of 54 wins to Oxford's 48, are favourites to repeat the feat, and with nine old Blues in the side that is understandable. But the Dark Blues are no mugs this year. They have half a dozen old hands themselves and a pack of awesome potential. The Light Blues have a talented set of threequarters and, with a competitive and skilful back-row, are adept at getting the ball out to them.

Both captains promise an expansive game. Denney and Reuben, among others, will be looking to expand their horizons.

OXFORD v CAMBRIDGE

at Twickenham

R Maher* University, capt 15 P Surridge* Hughes Hall

N Booth Worcester 14 N Walne* St Catharine's

N Larsen Lincoln 13 M Robinson Hughes Hall

B Rudge Keble 12 M Denney St Edmund's

R Pollock Keble 11 N Hill* St Edmund's

T Jensen* St Anne's 10 R Ashforth* Peterhouse

N Hogan* Merton 9 R Elliott St Edmund's

R Lehner St Anne's 1 G Reynolds* Hughes Hall

M Collard St Anne's 2 T Murphy* St Edmund's, capt

A Reuben University 3 M Foulds Sidney Sussex

T Eisenhauer* St Anne's 4 R Bramley* St Edmund's

A Roberts New 5 A Craig* Hughes Hall

M Orsler* Christ Church 6 M Hyde* St Edmund's

K Spicer* St Anne's 8 J Cocks St Edmund's

D Kelaher St Cross 7 H Whitford Homerton

*denotes Blue Kick-off: 2.0 (ITV)

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