The heady mix of style that means Varsity

THE FINAL WORD

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Circles South East Youth Service: Youth Services Volunteer

this is an unpaid voluntary position: Circles South East Youth Service: LOOKIN...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £30,000+

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading privately owned sp...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is require...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Supervisor

£24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest supplier to the UK'...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn