The heady mix of style that means Varsity

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The Independent Online
Who can ever forget poor old D D Dobson? He played in the Varsity match at the turn of the century and was subsequently mown down by a charging rhinoceros. When the dreadful news reached his old tutor at Oxford, he remarked solemnly: "He always did have a weak hand-off."

Ah yes, those were the days. When men were men and rhinos were capable of taking out the odd Dark Blue. In Dobson's case it was a defeat for brain against brawn but it is a heady combination of the two that usually characterises a phenomenon in Britain's sporting and social life, the annual rugby union match between Oxford and Cambridge.

Tomorrow 70,000 people will descend on Twickenham - students, businessmen, old Blues (wearing their moth-eaten colours around their reddened necks) and the odd neutral observer, for the 114th game in the series. They will make it a world-record attendance for a club match, generating income of pounds 1m with pounds 250,000 going to each university. As they are the last outposts of amateurism (none of that nonsense about paying players) this is pure profit for pure sport.

Why should such a huge crowd turn up on a cold Tuesday to watch 30 anonymous young men run themselves into the ground? Why, in comparison, is the Varsity football match a non-event? The game was indivisible until 1863 and most rugby clubs established before the Rugby Union in 1871 describe themselves simply as football clubs. However, there was the dribbling game, as played at Eton (on field and wine bar) and the handling game, as played at Rugby. Etonians were incensed that Rugbeians kept picking up the ball. In 1846 a meeting at Cambridge, dominated by the effete Etonians, objected to handling, mauling and hacking, and the division between the "Cambridge rules", which led to the Football Association, and rugby football, became clear. Under the FA, football grew more rapidly.

Rugby was a brutal mob game and Oxbridge played a leading role in refining the chaos, and it was the idea of actually moving the ball that moulded the modern game.

Oxford and Cambridge set the standard and became associated with the ethos of the game's the thing as in: "It is in the blood of genius to love play for it's own sake, and whether one uses one's skills on thrones or women, swords or pens, the game's the thing." Nice try, sonny. Winning's the thing and always has been. Try telling the losing side tomorrow that it is the taking part that matters.

The Varsity match, Edwardian image of raffish insouciance aside, has had a troubled history. It owes its date in the calendar to the fact that it was virtually an international trial, crammed as it was with the finest players from the four home countries. By the Seventies,however, it was in big trouble - another institution heading for destitution.

There were no dashing young blades, standards dropped, the games were poor and the crowd fell to below 20,000. Touts could not give tickets away. The dons were relegated to the bench and all of a sudden there appeared to be an ulterior motive to postgraduate entry. For every Rhodes scholar in Oxford, who happened to be a damned good player, Cambridge had land economy students, more than there was land and they, too, happened to be outstanding at rugby. What you did not see on University Challenge was: "Gavin Hastings, reading land economy."

To be fair to Rob Andrew, he read geography, which came in useful for his move from north London to Newcastle. This United States style of collegiate recruitment could not last, of course, although perhaps there has always been a little room for discretion. When Cyril Lowe (25 consecutive caps for England) went up to Cambridge 84 years ago, the senior tutor advised him not to sit the entrance exam "because I wouldn't understand the questions let alone know the answers."

In 1976 the match got its own US-style Rose Bowl, and a kiss of life, with the introduction of a City sponsor, C T Bowring. In return the firm recruits graduates. It is one of the cleverest, and cheapest, forms of sponsorship for a match that has the most intensive build-up, is faster than an international, has a unique team spirit, a fanatical commitment and yet eschews violence. A phenomenon.