Rugby Union: Roads diverge for two Blues

Paul Trow talks to Varsity veterans... Springbok coach and city slicker
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE both rugby rarities - victorious Dark Blues - but that is where the similarities between them end. Nick Mallett was the mastermind behind South Africa's astonishing record-equalling winning run brought to an end yesterday by England at Twickenham, where 19 years earlier he helped Oxford beat Cambridge 9-3. Rob Rydon, a winner in 1985 and 1986, is now merely an interested bystander.

All last week, the media praised Mallett's Springboks and compared them with the great All Blacks of the Sixties. By contrast, Rydon manages private investment portfolios for clients of Merrill Lynch bank. One of them has been the talk of the town, the other is something in the City.

On Tuesday afternoon, when the 117th Varsity Match kicks off in front of its customary full house of inebriated gentlemen, Rydon will be there as usual, having received his free ticket and dined with Oxford University Rugby Football Club at the Cafe Royal the night before. For Mallett, though, the lure of his Cape Town home after another lengthy absence is too strong.

"I'm flying back on Sunday afternoon," said Mallett, who turned his back on a successful business career last year to sign a contract as South Africa's national coach until the end of 1999. "I've been away for five months this year and I haven't seen my wife and two children in quite a while. They invited me to the dinner and my heart will be with Oxford, but I had to pass up the opportunity this time."

Family is also providing a counter-attraction for Rydon as his young son's school nativity play will be sandwiched between his hangover from Monday night and his pre-match hair-of-the-dog session with chums in the Twickenham car park. Nowadays, rugby is purely social for him. He played with Richmond for six seasons after Oxford and eventually captained the London club, but now confines himself to the occasional outing for the Stock Exchange.

Of his two Varsity Matches, he says: "They were the highlight of my sporting career. Everything we did each season was geared to that one all-important match. Not even a Cup quarter-final against Bath, which I suppose was my biggest game subsequently, came close.

"The fact that I'd played for Oxford certainly helped to open some doors when I was looking for a job as it meant I had something more to offer than just a degree.

"There was a lot of talent about - I partnered the Irish international Brendan Mullin at centre - but we lacked a bit of beef up front. There were more undergraduates than now, and probably fewer players from the southern hemisphere.

"But the standard of play varied according to the personnel. If you had a seasoned international on board like New Zealand's World Cup winning captain David Kirk, then your organisation improved and you were less likely to run around like headless chickens at 100mph."

Mallett, a No 8 who went on to win two Springbok caps in 1984, was partially seasoned at the time. He spent two years at Oxford, the second as a non- playing captain. "We had a good run in our games leading up to the 1980 Varsity Match, but I damaged knee ligaments just before it against Northampton and that put me out for 18 months."

As a 22-year-old, Mallett had never sampled an occasion like the Varsity Match. "The atmosphere was electric - the pinnacle of my life at the time. Only a Test can compare with it.

"What you get in a Varsity Match is 30 super-fit youngsters rushing around with boundless enthusiasm, but there will probably be only four players of international class on the pitch on Tuesday. In 1979, we had Simon Halliday while Cambridge had Paul Ackford and Marcus Rose. They all went on to play for England."

Still, for the rest, like Rydon, there is the consolation of belonging to the Blues' brotherhood.