Rugby Union / University Match: Rees targeted by Cambridge hit men: Another day and another packed house at Twickenham where a couple of visiting Canucks are the main attraction

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The Independent Online
THE City of London will empty as Twickenham fills this afternoon for a quintessential piece of British sporting tradition that will probably be decided by two Canadians. Now try working that one out.

The second Tuesday in December means the 112th University match. The last time there was a game at Twickenham, 68,000 watched the grown men of England beat New Zealand, and even to see the students - fully grown, but very young men - of Oxford and Cambridge contest the Bowring Bowl there will be 66,000.

This reflects the tradition of the occasion; why else would people with no obvious attachment to either shade of blue have the remotest interest? And it also reflects the more recent tradition of the City taking a day off. Why, Twickers is a place to be seen.

How important the rugby is in all this is open to question. Are those City types really bothered? The series was left at 51-47 to Cambridge when the Light Blues retained the Bowl last year in a forgettable match, but those of us who had the temerity to say it was forgettable received an official rebuke for daring to criticise so hallowed an institution.

After all, we were told, these were 30 youngsters doing their best and deserving of our support and understanding. OK, 66,000 people can't be wrong, and the derisory numbers who turn up for the universities' final later in the season show that there is something about the University match that make it the real thing compared with its somehow ersatz alternative.

This had plenty to do with the attraction of Gareth Rees to Oxford and Chris Tynan to Cambridge - the half-backs who inspired Canada to their historic defeat of Wales in Cardiff last month now engaged in a sharper rivalry than anything they ever experienced back home in British Columbia.

Rees is the outside-half who kicked the winning conversion against Wales and once landed eight penalties in a match against the Scots. 'We have simply got to cut out Gareth Rees,' Tony Rodgers, the Cambridge coach, said. 'For them everything revolves around him.'

When Rodgers then describes his Light Blues as 'massive underdogs', it is as well to remember that pre-match self-deprecation is almost as hallowed a tradition as the match itself. 'This year we have a particularly young side,' he added.

To take the most obvious contrast, this means that against the vast experience of Rees, who was playing for Wasps in the English cup final as long ago as 1986, Cambridge's faith lies in the 20-year- old undergraduate Scot, Alasdair Kennedy. An immense responsibility thus devolves on Tynan, both as scrum-half and, like Rees, goal- kicker.

Oxford have four Blues, Cambridge three. Oxford have two internationals, Cambridge one, the non-Canadian being a Welsh cap of such distant memory as to have been forgotten. Richard Wintle played as a replacement wing against Western Samoa in 1988. (Wales won.)

The University match has been known to provide a useful career push - look at Chris Oti, or further back Rob Andrew - and Wintle aspires to something similar. Then 20, now 25, he disappeared from view while studying medicine in London and working as a junior doctor in Swansea, Gloucester and Cardiff. Now he is doing a masters degree in X-rays.

Wintle's club registration is still held by Cardiff, whose colours, awkwardly for an Oxford man, are Cambridge blue and black. 'I will play in the Varsity match and then think about my future,' he said. 'Hopefully people will remember my name, that I did have potential, and I still have time on my side.' If not, perhaps they will do so after today.