The heady mix of style that means Varsity


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.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam