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Get Behind Rugby (The Varsity Match), I know we’re privileged - and it's a tough game.

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Rugby Union is a hooligans game played by gentlemen - so they say & can we please add now women to this cliché. It’s also a very “middle class” sport, with its origins in public school rule-breaking floggings. I argue though, it is the supreme team sport in that there is a position for every shape - and crucially it allows for a channelled positive outlet of anger (not new arguments but Freud get in here); and it forgives where this boils over into law breaking. So yes, it’s a posh old white man’s game - but allow it - get into it - learn it - attend it live - please please please.

The Varsity Match though, perhaps its most quintessential leaking flagship, needs the rugby community’s support - for this vehicle of ours has legs beyond the muscle-bound-small-car-crash head-rattling that’s going on in Level 1, Premiership and International. This vehicle of ours, rugby, and specifically The Varsity Match, why not, can be used for change. It is a prime car in the fleet of rugby that can so be used to great victory - if harnessed and backed right. Rugby and this Match can be used to promote the values of the sport, the value of aspiration, the value in academia and sport, and here’s the kicker after what would be one hell of a try: and their name is Ships, Scholar Ships. We need to provide funding to the non-privileged non-white to aim for Oxbridge and play rugby - to counter the impact of the Rhodes et al history that we still carry. We need the stars to return, the crowds too, so the kids can dream again, no matter the colour of their skin or the school they attend. It has to end, so why not start this close to home - an appeal (more on that later Toby).

So, in an echoing sun-kissed Twickenham stadium, with dust settled on an inevitable Six Nations campaign (heroics of Italy and Ange Capuozzo aside woop woop) - we had the 140th game of Rugby between Oxford University and Cambridge University, 150 years to the day since the first - what history.

As has been a typical feature of Union recently, the Gods dealt a decidedly red card early - not for contact with the head by head, shoulder or arm in the tackle but for a vicious stamp seconds after the victim, Nick Civetta of Oxford had gallantly soared to claim the match’s first lineout. Yes, it was his adversary and the frustrated loser from that lineout to enact the strike; Lock Charlie Friend of St John’s went off for a nervous watch, the first Cambridge man in a century and a half to be told - “you cannot be trusted here, please leave”.

He now joins a de-lustrious (sic) list of: your writer here (Keble, Oxon) Herbert Watson (St Edmund Hall, Oxon). It’s a shame because for us this is not, was not, just any other match - the next international, the next Prem game - the next win or loss bonus to accrue - these red cards, errors and breaks would be lamented or savoured at late night desks and copiers for the rest of long less, erm, exhilarating careers. The moments in these matches are the headlines for a life, not a week. I’m sure the crowd has their own experience of this. The Babcock Trophy is another fab example. These occasions should be cherished.

This heart-grabbing incident, the stamp, was seconds before - and deemed red after - a fantastic flurry of an opening try. With Callum Grant’s shimmy dummy and pass to a charging Luke Wyllie, Oxford were first on the board.

It was an early shot though that set the tone. Oxford’s Sam Reynolds (University) folding Toby Flood (Queens’ College Cantab) in half with a sound to match; clap.

And you know what - to the discerning viewers that say the standard isn’t more than the National Leagues. I say: that’s a good standard, and to measure it look at the quality of skill. Both 9s were sharp as hell.

And Flood was here for it. He hit back. On the Louis Jackson boy, giving himself a stinger in the process. Oh this was on. Benson had to step in at fly-half a bit, controlling things too, and he did well.

And from the bottom of a ruck you could hear the microphone’d cry of “SiiiiR” by Geordie Tynemouth educated vocal chords, the appeal of a panicking 10, a legend and name of the game. It's a lonely place, those stadiums when they are gunning for you - and you feel like there’s no-one there in support.

I did that - GB trials - Millennium stadium. Closed doors. Roof closed. It howled it down outside. Our Strength & Conditioning coach Howells warmed us up on a drenched Cardiff Arms Park. As an aside from an aside he could never figure out why my 20m sprint time went from Bolt and Norton competing to down down down; nor the Dr why my liver was giving off an out the park reading. I was depressed, not cheating. I was cheating but not by drugs - by sex.

Who else was this great seniored glad-stallion, Flood, up against? To name two: an American Olympian in Fijian born Durulato; and the Berkley educated New-York Italian Nick Civetta, a towering 5 off a stellar World Cup and with a fine collection of All-American caps. These guys too had played in big big games, and they were there throwing passes around in the moment like basketballs (showing this meant as much if not more), crashing into tackles - and the green basket of Twickenham bathed - with daffodils outside and memories of lost ones were no doubt held in the minds of the dwindling gathered, perhaps the older ones.

We had more drama. The Cambridge captain Stephen Leonard was forced off through injury, which brought in someone that signals what this match is crying out for: more black, brown and non-white skin. The bell rang in the fine muscular form of Demi Obembe.

It was our man Civetta who took payment for the upper hand - paving the way by dragging a diamond try after some serious pressure from Oxford. A familiar surname of Wilkinson added an excellent conversion from wide, wearing the opposite 10 to Flood. Meta. 14-0 up by his added two and honestly, but I’m sorry he looked like a choir boy never to have sniffed a erm...quiche (fff). I wonder what they served for dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club that night.

At this point let us take a breather to reflect. Here I hope you can start to see the beauty of this rose of a match and how there could be a bright field of it:

It is diverse by its nature in a way that the professional game (and football) is not.

It attracts a breadth of person (which could be utilised further) - making for an extra-interesting amateur narrative.

It allows for the tensions of rivalry to be healthily discharged (in a way that football does not - I’m afraid to say).

There is also something, particular to this occasion that is worth commendation. These men and women, and in the boat race too - and I speak from experience - these people are juggling a lot - and have their eyes and efforts on all-round betterment - and that in an increasingly dangerously homogenous world - it merits the crowds. I’m sure and sure hope the grand old famed Boat Race will be well spectated this year.

Watching, these boys and girls had been in the gym. They had been shifting some heavy tin together, to prepare for this one big moment. That action and other synchronistic movement is scientifically proven to cause bonding and improved results - no touching. Our captain of 2013, Jacob Taylor wrote a paper on it. That was the year I got the first red card - when I was still so deeply misunderstanding my sexuality - in the depths of denial and deceit -karma hey. We act out, if not aware - but that's a blog post for another time.

So, back to rugby - sacred pure wholesome fun only for me. These boys had really worked very hard together for freeeeeee to prepare for this. You have to respect that, guys. They aren't putting themselves in a potentially nightmare situation (again in 2013 Bomber Harris dislocated his leg from the hip to the extent that they couldn't get him into the ambulance). Yes, they are doing this for free, or as free as one can be.

And they really want it. and it's fantastic watching - seeing. In this encounter we had an inexperienced front row go head to head, literally, with an international like Eric Fry - and you could tell….

After a tough period of pressure, I noticed it was Benson with the try-line drop out not Flood. Did Flood want to be there? He's sharp and polished, sure, and looks bigger than some of his own pack but - any man can take any man down if they really want to, particularly if you double up. Did he want to be there? Maybe he was just doffing his cap to the younger lad, to say here have your moment drop-kicking out at Twickenham.

It's a beautiful sport. It’s a beautifully unique match. It felt like spring - an improved time of year for the fixture I think.

Oxford went in 21-0 up but as it went the second half was all deposits into the Cambridge column with some seriously impressive rugby played all round. I’ve heard reports from the Oxford camp that the ref might’ve favoured the Tabs for the sake of the game (them one down). If that is what we are to say, I’d actually like to add that there’s space for it in this match. I’m here for it. Discretion given to the wise brings no greater fairness.

There’s a picture of me, a teenager still, with my foot over the touchline when making a pass from a ruck. None other than Joe Roff of Australia World Cup fame turned a blind eye (he was running the line).

And the Man of the Match, the Alastair Hignell medal went to Alexander Post - a great performance - bravo Sir - and I too, should send some post. Thank you for the reminder, Universe.

A moment for self-indulgence if you don’t mind: I did pick up two of those medals in our four straight wins. People ask me why I quit pro-rugby - so here is one summary. It starts with a name and all will become clear:

Jamie Blamire - I bowed out for the sake of all those great players I’d seen not make it; to make a joke of it. The one’s probably most offended by it, I did it for them - to make a mockery of it - because that’s all it is - all any of this is - a mockery - a rockery built in the garden not for you, the child to enjoy - but for the world to enjoy. You might think you are the master of that ship, playing games there - this world is all about me - the little child within - but you know what - the top stars - this isn’t all for you because it’s all luck. Blessings are easily given and oh so easily taken away - of this I am reminded as my tired eyes fade - could they fail me forever one day. I bowed out because I saw the futility of it, the fine margins, the whims of it. I bowed out because, reading Siddhartha on that Sofa in South Jesmond - I realised it’s all paths - destinies - the flow of the river - what is to be and I knew that rugby was not for me. I was probably not quite good enough anyway - that left hand pass might often deceive me.

And back to the title of this subsection - here we have a hero of the current England rugby team - a boy from nowhere making runs to end tries like he’s working holistically. I saw him and a few others play; played with them their senior - and you think boy: what a life. Enjoy. Rip in.

But how does this tie in with the Varsity Match? I think this game gives a real opportunity to young aspiring, and crucially intelligent players to be seen (like my old mate Will Rowlands killing it for Wales). An old coach of mine used to say “you’ve just got to get in the shop winda” - and that’s what this does. Back in the day, my day even, you knew Rob Andrew would be watching - now it’s Dom Waldouck (biggup brother), who is killing it as Defence coach with Gloucester and is surely trailing-a-blaze for the modern deep-thinking and emotionally intelligent player/club managers.

It gives a chance for your ordinary boys and girls that are very talented athletes and scholars the opportunity to rub shoulders with these players. There were no “huge” players in my era - in a bit of a lull - but since, no small matter of Jamie Roberts (who my friend is lauded for giving himself concussion for the cause - dead-legging and subbing off the Lions Great).

This match gives mere mortals like us - the ones that don’t quite make it - a chance to have a pop at these heroes - to measure ourselves and to realise - we are all just men and women really. I’m pleased to see, by the sustained presence of these characters at least (but not perhaps enough or as yet on the women’s side) - this aspect of the Varsity Match has continued to be respected - though I think more would always be welcome.

This though, I think shows the modern climate. Of course these guys, who have saved up quite a mint playing in this era - of course they want another accolade to their name - an Oxbridge degree and the whole experience. This is it though really isn’t it. We have two absolute gems here - the envy of the world and all those not lucky enough to attend. Flood, Roberts - smart guys that have the bank backing them. This, my rugby brothers and sisters - is what we need to tackle, and I think an appeal to the monied stakeholders of The Varsity Match and Twickenham - to start to use this majestic game as an opportunity.

I wasn’t able to attend the game, but since watching back I really did feel like there was something special in the air that day. The Varsity Match’s poorest attendance in memory, with optimistic change hanging light. Rugby for me is the team sport of the Gods, Oxford and Cambridge are blessed places – and so this sacred and aged match needs to be respected with feet in the stands, in its rightful place at The Home of Rugby (with a revamp).

And by the way - probably the most exciting games this weekend are happening on a smaller pitch, or at the very least in junior sized kits. I’ll have an eye on the Stafford Roses u16s result. Shout out to the girls, I couldn’t possibly pick anyone out.


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