Clash of the campus titans: Varsity for beginners

Leeds student Rosie Collington is beginning to see what the fuss is about

Varsity: ‘Tis the season of sports teams, school colours and which side are you on; of themed club nights and stripes, when posters for fixtures are put up across campus and not just in the Health Sciences block. This is the season of “banter”, and bruises, and of unadulterated, unfounded and wildly optimistic elitism. But it’s all done in the name of friendship and cooperation.

Anyone walking around either the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University last week would be forgiven for thinking that, according to everybody, Varsity is the most important event of the year. Indeed, for many students this day of competitive sports fixtures between the two universities does constitute something of a pinnacle. Sports teams do not take the event lightly, and, as claimed by one lacrosse competitor I spoke to, the pre-season run up to Varsity is the most intense training period of the year.

I, however, did not even know what Varsity was before last Wednesday. But I also did not think I was alone in my ignorance. A fellow comrade of the unfit masses proved this when she asked “why are students from Met here?” after I had dragged her along with me to watch the swimming gala.

After glimpsing one of the many posters for Varsity adorning the university’s walls last week, I decided to investigate what this day is really about. Were the teams competing in it honestly doing so in the spirit of cooperation and friendship? Or was Varsity sports teams’ answer to realpolitik?

A few Internet searches reveal that Varsity really is a pretty big deal. Almost every competitive sport – from Ultimate Frisbee to indoor rowing – is battled out between the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University during these 24 hours.

Beyond Oxbridge

Varsity has actually been adopted by myriad sets of universities throughout the United Kingdom since Oxford and Cambridge first trialed the competition in 1872. Now, every year, the University of Bristol takes on UWE, Cardiff goes up against Swansea, and Manchester University competes with Manchester Metropolitan University. At every university, the day culminates in a rugby union match between the two rivals.

But, as I discovered during my day as a spectator of Varsity fixtures, the event is not just for sporty people. I expected to be alone gazing in awe at the athletic shapes before me, yet I was constantly surrounded by fans and friends of competitors from both the University of Leeds and from Leeds Metropolitan University (depending on which side I was sitting, of course).

One supporter of the Leeds University netball 1 team I spoke to said she was there because Varsity was “a way to get involved. It makes you feel part of Leeds University”.

The most surprising part of Varsity for me was discovering that the events were actually entertaining. I’ve never particularly enjoyed playing or watching competitive sports, but I got so hooked on the women’s water polo; I couldn’t help but wonder whether physics had stopped working, or if they really were moving that quickly in the water.

Varsity is ultimately a competition, and it came with its fair share of dubious slogans and questionable comments from members of each University about the other. No event I attended was totally free of snobbery-ridden “banter” from a supporter of Leeds University towards the Leeds Met team. Comments from the other side were also frequent, and always crude.

I personally couldn’t bring myself to chant “What’s that coming over the hill, it’s unemployment, it’s unemployment” at the Leeds Met team with the few thousand others from my University during the Rugby Union match at Headingley Carnegie Stadium; graduate employment is a sobering thought for everyone these days, and I’d just spent £4 on a Guinness.

Yes, varsity is supposedly all about who won and who lost. But at Leeds, the result of each event was not obvious from the way the team players treated each other afterwards. No one was sobbing, or rubbing (figurative) salt into an opponent’s spike wound.

University should be about trying new things. I’m not going to start training for next year’s indoor rowing team, and the day hasn’t inspired me to take up cricket or volleyball alongside my studies. Yet I did learn to enjoy sport in a different way, as a spectator.

The battle of Varsity is fierce indeed. But in a world that encourages us to compete at every level, it was nice to see others doing it without too much animosity – at least until changing-room doors are closed.

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