Rugby Union: Oxbridge heading for the twilight zone

Paul Trow fears the Varsity Match could fade into the memory
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The Independent Online
The last thing on the minds of most rugby people, when the professional game burst into life, was how it would affect the Varsity Match.

The fixture, which dates from 1871, is one of the oldest on the calendar and has an international identity which transcends the cloistered world of Oxford and Cambridge. A quick glance at the roll-call of those who have taken part in the 114 previous contests, demonstrates the high standard of rugby to which the two universities have consistently aspired.

But as preparations for the 115th version on Tuesday at Twickenham are finalised, the question arises, especially with so much money now on offer from ambitious clubs to players, as to how much longer Oxford and Cambridge can continue to attract the richest talents.

Oxbridge rugby has traditionally been an important stage in a player's development and, for many Blues, a successful showing at Twickenham has provided a passport into international rugby. Of the present England squad, the captain, Phil de Glanville, his Bath team-mate Victor Ubogu and the Wasps No 8, Chris Sheasby, are all graduates of the Varsity Match.

"It's still one of the biggest games of all," Steve Hill, Oxford's director of rugby, said. "Ask David Humphreys about it. He had an outstanding Varsity Match last year and went on to establish himself in the Ireland team on the strength of what he did that day. This year's game is a sell-out, as usual."

The fact that the Varsity Match has long been the City's unofficial pre- Christmas afternoon off partly explains its enduring popularity with spectators, but the rugby clubs at Oxford and Cambridge have not become rich on the proceeds.

"We can't keep up with the contracts being put to the top players," Dick Tilley, the rugby development officer for Cambridge's colleges, said. "But it's still too early to be sure how we're going to be affected long term by professional rugby. We'll have to see whether the clubs can sustain the salary levels they've started with. There's a limit to the financial assistance we can give to a student and there's no way we can compete at the moment."

Neither Tilley nor Hill are wholly pessimistic about the future - although Cambridge's 87-5 hammering at Leicester last weekend was hardly a morale booster. "Even if we're not playing a first-choice side, there are always a few internationals against us in these games and we're up against quicker and more physical players who now train every day," Tilley said.

Tilley also identified two further problems which have emerged this season. "Fixture chaos and the cost of insurance are real headaches," he said. "The top sides are now so committed to league and other competitive fixtures, it's hard for them to fit us in."

Both Hill and Tilley are convinced that, despite their financial disadvantage, the universities still have much to offer. "Look at some young players at other clubs," Hill said. "They're having a long season, their contracts are turning out not to be worth as much as they thought and, in the long run, what will the clubs do for them?

"Initially, it seemed that guys would be put off coming here because they could earn money elsewhere, but I now see a different pattern emerging. A lot of the younger players are playing in development or second XVs in front of the proverbial two men and a dog. There's very little development going on and what, I wonder, does the Saracens' flanker feel following the signing of Francois Pienaar?"

Hill argues that Oxford and Cambridge should introduce sports scholarships along the lines of Loughborough or Bath, but some influential figures on the club scene are happy with the old universities as they are.

Cardiff's chief executive, Gareth Davies, capped 21 times by Wales after winning an Oxford Blue in 1977, said: "Oxford was a fantastic experience and I'd do it again today even if it meant turning down a lot of money. We can still cope with players keeping their careers going while playing professional rugby, so we'd highly recommend it. We look at it as an investment in a young player who we would have full use of from the age of 21 or 22."