Rejuvenated Ufton back in big time to lift blues at last

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The Independent Online

Even before going up to Cambridge Johnny Ufton had every right to feel blue. Two cruel knee injuries robbed him first of possible representative honours, then ended the talented full-back's playing career altogether.

He still has a bolt, à la Frankenstein, to remind him of the frailty of man. "There is a screw protruding at the moment in my left knee," he says. "It does not give me any trouble, but I have to have it removed soon. Occasionally it sets off the metal detectors at airports."

But blue he is not. Light Blue he is. "I am an undergraduate, at 29, studying geography," said Ufton, who has played more than 100 Premiership games for Wasps. "I already had a degree from Reading in agricultural economics and had been working as a financial adviser, but this was one of those opportunities I could not say no to." He added: "Remarkably I have had no problem slipping back into the student life. I thought I would have, but, no." And a wicked smile creases his still youthful face.

Ufton, the son of Derek, the former Charlton Athletic footballer and Kent cricketer, had been on the verge of England A honours, having played in all the England age groups up to the point when he suffered the first injury. "The first injury, to my right knee, was a real blow," says Ufton. "That was in 1997, and came when I was in my prime. Wasps had just won the League the year before as well. That was the injury that really finished things for me."

He played on once he had recovered, and was on the bench for the 2000 Cup final against Northampton, but did not play in Wasps' victory.

At the start of the next season, the last straw. "I did my left knee in the first game of the 2000-2001 season against Leicester and it took me about 14 months to get back. Unfortunately by then my contract with Wasps had run out, so I was left in no-man's land."

He turned out for London Welsh for a while, but then came the phone call from the Cambridge coach, Tony Rodgers, which has ensured him, if not gainful employment for the next three years, then at least a lot of fun and the chance of some serious, high-profile rugby once more.

Ufton finds the contrast between the professional game and the amateur one startling, yet refreshing. "The Varsity Match is an amazing thing really," he says. "I have never before been involved in rugby where everything, the whole season, is geared for this one match... All that matters is what happens on that one day of the season.

"Having watched previous Varsity Matches and thought, the rugby is not that good, I realise now it is nothing to do with the lack of skill. It is just purely and simply the pressure that the players are under. I think that is maybe where I have an advantage having played big games and at Twickenham before, it allows me to take a step back really."

As for his previous rugby life: "The day-in, day-out drudgery of professional rugby I definitely do not miss," he says, and adds: "I am able to contribute at training sessions, as is everyone in the squad. It makes for a great squad atmosphere. The Varsity Match most definitely has a place in the rugby calendar. I think it is important to hold on to some of the amateur roots of the game. Everyone needs a broader scope. It gives people a more rounded attitude to things, to the game and to life.

"Just by being involved with Cambridge you come to appreciate the history and tradition behind the match, and that is part of what being British is all about. Keeping hold of it. It might be argued that it is archaic, but I would maintain that it is a fantastic tradition and has a special place."

There speaks a true Blue.