Alan Watkins: Twickenham crowds show value in Varsity fare

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The Independent Online

In the days when Dick Best was the Harlequins coach, a decade ago – though it seems another age – he was asked what he thought of the forthcoming Oxford v Cambridge match. He said he was astonished that so many people were prepared to turn up to watch what he described as 30 ex-schoolboys trying to play rugby. At least, his interlocutor replied, it would be more entertaining than watching 30 ex-chefs – a reference to Best's own former trade or occupation.

They turn up at Twickenham still, not in quite such great numbers as they did 10 years ago, but in considerable force all the same. No Zurich Premier Division club approaches 50,000, or would, even with a ground of that capacity. Indeed, Leicester is the only top club that regularly attracts even a five-figure crowd.

The rugby union match is the only encounter between England's senior universities (for Scotland possesses more ancient places of learning) that has retained its glamour. The football match never possessed much even in the days when it was played at Wembley. The cricket match has now been moved from Lord's to alternating Fenner's and the Parks, with merely a one-day match played at the Marylebone ground.

The saddest fall of all has been that of the Boat Race. Time was, the entire nation took sides, like the Blues and the Greens in the Constantinople of the Byzantine empire. Even children in state schools would sport rosettes of light blue or dark blue proclaiming their allegiance. Today the event is buoyed up by television and the sports pages. But of genuine popular interest there is practically nil.

The rugby match has, by contrast, alone maintained its prestige. One reason is that it has been adopted by the City as an afternoon out. In the 1950s and 1960s it did not fulfil this function. The change came in the 1980s with the prosperity and the ostentation of the Thatcher years.

The patronage of the City survived even the "big bang'' of 1987, which had been meant to make everyone work harder in that particular neck of the woods. It may be that it will not survive the American takeover, though so far the attendances have kept up surprisingly well.

What is odd is that few of these spectators from the Square Mile have any connection either with the ancient universities or even with rugby football. Gnawing on a half-cooked lamb chop in one of the Twickenham car parks to the accompaniment of icy claret out of plastic cups in the freezing cold is not my idea of the height of human felicity. But other people seem to enjoy it. Everyone to his or her taste is what I say.

It would, however, be wrong to think that the university match has prospered as it has merely because it has been adopted by the City; it has produced excellent players and excellent matches.

As spectacles, the games seemed to attain their height when Clive Norling was in charge as referee. He supervised five games altogether in the period between 1977 and 1989. He was a pioneer, largely unsung, in his interpretation of the advantage law and in his practice of controlling the game as if conducting an orchestra. Modern referees have adopted the latter method of proceeding, though without Norling's intelligence or his humour. A less happy precedent was provided more recently by the equally popular Tony Spreadbury. It was he who inaugurated that modern fad, which comes and goes with fashion, of awarding penalty tries.

Some of the players have been even more outstanding. The great Bill McLaren is now compiling a best-ever post-war XV in what we old journalists have been brought up to call Another Newspaper. He has already chosen his backs. Three of them are fairly recent Cambridge Blues: Gerald Davies, Mike Gibson and, controversially, Rob Andrew (for most people, myself included, would have chosen Barry John instead).

McLaren could easily have chosen another Cambridge Blue, Gavin Hastings, at full-back instead of his first choice, Andy Irvine. I should have gone for someone else, Serge Blanco. But that is for another column later on.

The players are still there despite the academically exigent entrance requirements. But the old days will never return because of professionalism. It was undoubtedly unfair to established club performers that, following the match, the England trial teams would be announced with (as happened in the 1960s) three Cambridge players and one Oxford player as the Probables' threequarter line. But it is equally unhealthy that, with a few exceptions – such as Wasps' Mark Denney – the university players of today are denied to top-class rugby.

There may be a solution. I said earlier that the university football match had always lacked glamour. This was not true of the postgraduate football team of the 1950s. Corinthian-Casuals. Why should university rugby not now come up with something along the same lines?