Victory for old ways

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The Independent Online
HAIL AND farewell to the Barbarians, ditto to the Varsity Match. Two of rugby's most revered institutions, were both seemingly about to be condemned, if not to death, then to a much less meaningful life. There was every possibility that the Barbar ians match, the glittering finale to major tours for almost half a century, would stand or fall by the game against South Africa at Lansdowne Road last Saturday, while the Varsity Match, 122 years old last Tuesday, had, in the eyes of many, become a suit able case for euthanasia.

As a sizeable proportion of the City of London decamped for their pre-Christmas jolly to Twickenham, the partially clad skeleton of the west stand was a stark metaphor for what is happening in the game. Down with the old, up with the new. Even the allotments, the last reminder of the "Cabbage Patch" purchased 87 years ago by Billy Williams but now denied the energy-giving light by the towering north stand, are withering.

Twickenham, as it has been to successive generations, its quaintly eccentric charms giving it a unique character and soul, is no longer. Neither is Murrayfield, behind which train drivers would once stop in respectful silence for a kick to be taken. In time, the magnificently reconstructed grounds will assume their own identities, but there could be no such reincarnation for the Barbarians or for the Varsity Match.

The extraordinary popularity of the latter, a contest between two clubs who play to a standard not far above junior level, is almost entirely due to the fact that it is played at Twickenham. Were it held anywhere else, the fall in popularity and attendance would be immediate. Happily, the threat to move the game to Wembley proved to be no more than a red herring, and an accommodation has been reached between the universities and the RFU which ensures that Twickenham will remain the permanent home for the match.

As for the fixture itself, that will depend upon the quality of the players and the entertainment value of the game, both of which passed the most rigorous of examinations last Tuesday. If marks for technical merit were low, they were concealed by the passion of the game.

In the aftermath of the Bishop Committee set up to examine the structure of the game in England, the place of the universities in the new order of things is coming under the same kind of scrutiny as the Barbarians. And with the four Home Unions considering a proposal to restore four international matches for touring sides, the Barbarians' privileged position as the last act in the drama is, despite their performance against the Springboks, still uncertain.

If the proposal were accepted it would mean that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia would once again play a Grand Slam series against the four home countries, a sufficiently demanding schedule to discourage touring sides from playing in effect a fifth Test against the Barbarians.

And those contemptuously dismissive of the notion that the Five Nations' Championship could be imperilled by the demands of the World Cup need look no further than last weekend, when the England squad members involved in the game against Canada were refused their release to play for the Barbarians. Before the team to play South Africa had been selected, two members of the England side telephoned Geoff Windsor-Lewis, the Barbarians secretary, asking to be considered but permission to play was refused by the England management. Only the World Cup can do this.

How much would those two players have given to have been part of such a momentous occasion. It was a game fit to rank with the 1973 epic when Ian Kirkpatrick's All Blacks got their comeuppance. There were some parallels last week, not the least of which was the flow of play, against the normal tide, from left to right and where in 1973 the Barbarians had placed David Duckham on the wing, they had another blond assassin last Saturday in Simon Geoghegan.

The selectors had chosen their units well - the all-Irish front row, a back row of contrasting yet complementary skills and a half-back partnership tried and tested on a Lions tour. It was a largely unheralded part of Robert Jones's exquisite craftsmanship that he nursed his partner Craig Chalmers through some early turbulence into a composed final quarter.

Furthermore, Windsor-Lewis's long-held belief that Mike Hall, given early ball, can be profoundly unsettling to the opposition, was vindicated. So was the tradition of fielding a non-capped player. Seldom has this selection had such an impact as Simon Shaw did at Lansdowne Road. The match was as much of a triumph for the traditionalists as it was for the Barbarians. By their victory and the manner of it, the Barbarians have put forward an almost unanswerable case for their existence. So, in d ifferent ways during the past week, have the universities. If they cannot halt the march of progress, they can at least influence where it puts its feet and that it treads gently on the treasured memories of some and the cherished hopes and ambitions of others.