Blues Need to Use Brains

 Times Column 4/12/04

The Oxford-Cambridge match was once Twickenham’s landmark pre-Christmas fixture. It hardly mattered if it wasn’t very good, because any rugby at all was better than none.

As it happened, the game sometimes lived up to the optimism of its regular 50,000 light and dark blue supporters.  When Cambridge undergraduate Rob Andrew could be judged against Oxford undergraduate Stuart Barnes, the match still had meaning as an elite contest.  Some of the nation’s brightest young players would be scrutinised as they negotiated the pressures of a heaving Twickenham.

Tuesday’s 123rd Varsity match is unlikely to offer a glimpse of tomorrow’s stars.  There are only four undergraduates in the starting line-ups, and Cambridge have 30-year-old Johnny Ufton at full-back.  Ufton played one hundred games for Wasps, but won’t be adding to that number, and he’ll share the Twickenham pitch with a smattering of graduates similarly fading from an almost-glorious past.  The match increasingly resembles a terminus for the game’s further-educated journeymen.

Any student with a genuine rugby future will be spending the afternoon elsewhere, involved in a professional set-up.  A good example would be Nick Wood, England under-21 prop and one-time Oxford undergraduate.  On Tuesday he’ll be at the other end of the M4, making himself available for the Heineken Cup, when Gloucester visit Cardiff.

For more evidence of decline, look at the traditional warm-up matches against invitational sides.  These used to sparkle with international talent, but ten days ago Cambridge beat a Steele-Bodger’s XV whose highest scorer was David Humphrys’s brother.  One week at Twickenham we have the zing and blam of Josh Lewsey against Lote Tuqiri.  The next, a bunch of not very young blokes fresh from a scratchy win against a pick-up team inspired by the brother of Ireland’s second-choice fly-half.

All the Blues who run out on Tuesday will be good players.  But unlike in the past, they’re nowhere near the best the game has to offer.  Not unconnectedly, last year’s attendance dropped to 41,000, and this year’s early ticket sales have been slow.  No wonder the sponsors, MMC, prefer to draw attention to ‘the vitality and competitiveness of amateur rugby’.  If this was genuinely what we wanted to see, then Tuesday should be cleared for North Walsham versus Halifax.  Respectively, these two flourishing amateur clubs top National Divisions 2 South and North.  The standard of rugby is much the same, though with fewer mature scholars from the southern hemisphere.

At some point, the Universities have to stop racing about playing nearly the same game as professionals, only not quite so well.  After a particularly dire Varsity match in 2001, ‘informal discussions’ were held between the two university clubs, aimed at reaching a consensus on the urgent need for entertaining rugby.  Nevertheless, last year’s game ended in a low-scoring draw, with both teams terrified of fluffing their season’s only match of any significance.

It’s about time Oxford and Cambridge re-opened discussions, and recognised the one-off nature of their fixture as its biggest strength.  Just as an example, the clubs could announce that neither team was going to kick the ball from any position in open play.  There’s no league to lose, no next round of a cup to reach.  The clubs could instantly restore the value of this unique match by using it as an annual experiment, in the service of rugby research and discovery.  Make the result academic, and set the students free.

At Cambridge, such a pioneering spirit already exists.  For the last eight years the Director of Rugby, Dick Tilley, has used the Cambridge College Leagues to trial experimental rule changes for the RFU.  Some of these work (the sin-bin) and are subsequently proposed to the IRB, while some don’t (eight points for a penalty).  Either way, Tilley has imaginatively succeeded in reviving Cambridge’s historic contribution to the game.

Without some similar reinvention, the Varsity Match risks following the slide of Varsity cricket.  A once significant first-class fixture is now reduced to a Lord’s inconvenience, with a one-day square prepared between rows H and G of the Edrich stand.

Perhaps the Oxford and Cambridge rugby clubs are alert to the danger.  It would be great to see intelligence take over from imitation on Tuesday, Twickenham a temporary show-home for some sharply innovative rugby.  Once a year, the clever boys have the field to themselves.  They should use the opportunity wisely.