Ruck and Maul: Varsity teams want to fly the flag for last year's men

The 129th Varsity Match at Twickenham next Thursday will be the 14th since the RFU ended the ancient practice of the previous year's captains running touch, or acting as assistant referees as it would be called today. The two sides would like the tradition restored but it will not happen this year. Ian Minto, the general manager of Cambridge University RUFC, told Ruck and Maul: "There's been a lot of talk about the match as one of the last great amateur bastions, people were looking back fondly and we mentioned it in a meeting with Oxford a few weeks ago. We're both in favour, we are just not sure where to take it." So when Andrew Small becomes the first New Zealander to referee the match in its 138-year history (albeit as an employee of Twickenham in his fourth season as a professional whistler in England) he will have RFU colleagues as his assistants with the flags. But there's a nice touch on the touchline, as they will be father and son Andrew and Luke Pearce.

Johnno's textbook psychology

The England manager, Martin Johnson, is routinely portrayed as a grumpy ogre but he has never underestimated the value of team-bonding. He mentioned after the recent defeat of Australia that he had urged the players to send a text to non-playing squad-mates in their positions. "It was just a recognition from the squad that those guys who come in and train with us on Monday and Tuesday are all part of the success. It's an understanding that when we get to a Six Nations and certainly when we get to a World Cup, it's a 30-man effort, that everyone's got to play their part. If you're the unlucky one who doesn't get to put your kit on, you've still got a big role to play in getting that team ready to go. Even in that last week [of the autumn] when the extra guys knew there wasn't a game the following week they all trained really well and gave the team the work-out they needed."

Message the egos

More than a dozen players were in and out of the England squad during the autumn without playing, most as injury cover, including Tom Wood. The uncapped but in-form Northampton back-rower had three trips down the M1 for early-week sessions. "It's good that you get to know the coaches, the players and the systems," he told Ruck and Maul, "and you get to know roughly where you stand in the pecking order." And where is that? "It's fairly obvious that if you're down there you must be fairly close. I'm playing as a No 7 for Northampton but most of my rugby for [his previous club] Worcester and the Saxons has been at six. And I'm doing line-out work for Northampton so I'm not an out-and-out seven for them." Wood applauded the idea of the texts as "a good thing, to build camaraderie." Only one problem. "I haven't got a phone, I lost it a few weeks ago."

hughgodwin@yahoo.co.uk

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