From The Vaults

24 July 2023
The Varsity Match: A Story of Twists and Turns by Paul Chéhère

Since the beginning of rugby's history, students have often been at the cutting edge of English rugby, contributing greatly to the development of the game in the UK. For example, the Varsity Match of 1875 was played as 15-a-side, 2 years before 15-a-side was envisaged as an international rule and used by the England team.

In fact, the selection of England players during the pre-professional era of rugby has a strong correlation with the Oxbridge teams. In the 1881-1882 season, teams such as Oxford had around 12 internationals in their ranks and in 1886, 13 players from the Cambridge team were already, or later became, England players. This trend continued until the 1980s, with numerous Oxbridge players selected for the national team. For decades, the Varsity match could be considered an unofficial trial, which "started in 1872 and proved fertile ground for the selectors over the next hundred years" (McGowan & Steele, 2021).

1955

A very good example of the importance of this trial on the Oxford side is the half-back combination of Olwyn Brace and Mike Smith in the famous 1955 clash "which automatically brought them international caps" (Reyburn, 1975, 60).

More than 160 players have been capped for England while at the two universities and countless more after graduation. Oxbridge has also been the birthplace of many other internationals, particularly from the Commonwealth, such as New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

However, after the 1990s, the influence of the Varsity Match on English rugby, and more particularly on the top level, gradually began to wane. The number of spectators decreased, the best players in the country no longer wear dark blue or light blue striped shirts and the match no longer interests the England team selectors as a means of forming their teams.

Prior to the late 1960s, the relationship between the Varsity match and England International selection was unquestionable: from 1960-1966, an average of four players in the Varsity game would go on to play for England, with as many as eight current or future internationals featuring in a year like 1961. However, the move towards introducing leagues in 1971 had a considerable impact on the Varsity match, as the university sides were not invited to join the RFU Club Championship.

This developing competitiveness also diversified the pool of rugby players training for matches, counteracting the Oxbridge students' athleticism, one of their strengths in terms of selection. Elite rugby became increasingly populated with players from different backgrounds, all coached and well-drilled in the basic skills. According to Wallace Reyburn, by the mid-1970s the concept of moving straight from the varsity match into international rugby was becoming obsolete (Reyburn, 1975).

Figure 2

Graph showing the number of England International players in the Varsity Match

However, the decline was not definitive. In 1978, the number of England internationals playing in the Varsity match took off again, with the likes of Simon Halliday at Oxford, and K.G Simms and Rob Andrew at Cambridge. Just over a month after the 1984 Oxford Cambridge duel, the two men made their debuts for the England selection. Yet Simms and Andrew were probably the last players to be selected for the England team after their remarkable performances in a Varsity Match. A number of factors shaped the separation of Blues and elite English rugby, most notably the advent of professionalisation.

The professional era has profoundly altered the status of the Varsity game. Attendance figures of the Varsity Match remained very high immediately after professionalisation in 1995 even peaking at 70,000 in 1997 and 1998, but attendance began to wane in the early 2000s. The number of spectators fell from 50,000 in 2002 to 2,133 in 2012.

Between 1995 and 2023, no England international appeared in a Varsity Match or progressed from a Varsity match to the England team, with the exception of Toby Flood, who went to Cambridge towards the end of his rugby career to spend a year as a postgraduate student. Nearly all of the non-England internationals who took part in a Varsity Match during this period were former players preparing for their reappointment, like Jamie Roberts, Welsh international who went to Cambridge to complete his medical training. Varsity thereby lost its position as a breeding ground for international rugby players.

Figure 1

Graph showing the evolution of attendance of the Varsity Match since 1948

The transition to the professional era accelerated specialisation once again: being a top-level player while completing a doctorate in medicine was no longer an option, as it was until the 1960s. With professionalisation came the emergence of academies to train players. Players with high potential studied at schools with specially adapted curricula that placed greater emphasis on rugby. High-level rugby was thus opened up to an ever-growing population, no longer reserved for the elite of the white upper classes.

With the professionalisation of rugby, players were now able to make a living from their sport, which could be a means of social advancement for a large number of players. The pool of top players diversified and became less and less concentrated in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Firstly, because of the possibility of making a living from rugby so you do not necessarily need a top-level degree to earn a living. Secondly, because the rugby coaching offered at Oxbridge is moving further and further away from the high level offered in the academies or in other universities such as the one in Loughborough.

The increasing gap between the Blues and professional rugby decreased the entertainment value of the Varsity match for spectators, both in term of quality of the rugby and the "stakes" of the match. Although it still retained a symbolic element that made it an important date in the calendar for rugby fans until the 2000s, the attendance figure which, even if they drop, remain between 50,000 and 40,000 spectators per Varsity match.

However, the date of the Varsity game itself has also been shaken up by competition from more and more events. The 5 Nations Tournament became the 6 Nations Tournament in 2006, raising its profile and increasing the number of matches. The autumn tour of international teams also encroached on Varsity's fixture, highlighting its relative unimportance compared to, admittedly friendly, international games.

2020s

In 2022 and partially in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the game even shifted from its traditional early December date to spring, with the day also switching to the weekend in an attempt to attract more alumni and general fans of top amateur rugby. The abundance of other rugby events, coupled with the drop in the level of the rugby union on display at Varsity match, may have played a role in the decreasing media coverage of the Varsity Match.

[Image: Oxford v Cambridge, 25/03/2023, Twickenham by Alex Davidson/Getty Images]

Whereas in the 1960s to late 1970s, the Varsity match could make the front page of The Times, in 2022 the score of the match was not even reported in the following Monday's newspaper. The way in which the Varsity Match evolved in the media, in the stands and on the pitch could suggest that it is on its way out, despite the support of a large number of sponsors over the period 1995-2023, including MMC, Nomura, Jefferies, and more recently Rhino. The financial support is there, but the popular enthusiasm is not, which is all the more surprising when you consider that the Boat race, the equivalent of the Varsity match in rowing, continues to attract a great deal of media coverage.

The Varsity match has been greatly changed by professionalisation, to the point that in 2023 questions are being raised over its future. Throughout its history, attendance at the match has fluctuated to a greater or lesser extent, alternating between phases of crisis and phases of great popularity. While 2023 ratings are still not as low as they were over a century ago, when the Varsity Match was still played at Queen's, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to fall, leading to its demise, or whether the Varsity Match will once again rise from the ashes.

About the Author - Paul Chéhère is a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Rennes. He is studying in the Sports Science and Physical Education department (2SEP). Specializing in sociology, he is interested in sport as a social phenomenon, and more specifically rugby, a subject on which he has already carried out several research projects. As a French national, much of his research has focused on French rugby. However, during a six week internship at the World Rugby Museum, Chéhère carried out a postgraduate research project on the Varsity Match, a truly English phenomenon.

More than just a game, he considers the Varsity match as a witness to the evolution of the English educational model and the transformation of the way sport is viewed over time. This article is only an extract from his research project, which examines in greater detail the evolution of the Varsity match within English society.