From The Vaults

06 December 2021
#FromTheVaults – Varsity Match Programme, 1921

The Varsity Match epitomises the long-standing rivalry between the universities at Oxford and Cambridge and December 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Varsity Match played at Twickenham.

The very first Varsity Match was held at Oxford University Parks in 1872, and Cambridge hosted the fixture at Parker's Piece the following year. Several other venues subsequently hosted the game, including The Oval at Kennington, Rectory Field in Blackheath and the Queen's Club in Fulham. Over time, the crowds grew and it was decided that the match should be moved to Twickenham Stadium.

This programme is from the first occasion that Oxford and Cambridge played each other at Twickenham, on 8th December 1921. Oxford were captained by Ewen Campbell of Oriel College and Cambridge were captained by Ronald Cove-Smith of Caius College. The programme, which cost threepence, was printed on pale blue paper - a reference to the blue kits worn by the two teams. It wasn't always this way though: when the Varsity Match was first contested in 1872, Cambridge wore pink. It was not until 1876 that they took to the field in their light blue kit.

Inside the programme are the team lists, along with the alma mater of each player. Of the students listed, nine were current or future international rugby players. Oxford's team included the Scotland full-back, Hector Forsayth; the Cambridge team boasted Cove-Smith, Geoffrey Conway and William Wavell Wakefield, who had already received England caps, as well as Richard Hamilton-Wickes and David MacMyn, who would subsequently make their international debuts for England and Scotland respectively.

The experienced players were not averse to complicity in some characteristic student mischief. Wakefield later recalled events preceding the match, when his team decided to dress up a statue outside the hotel where the opposition were staying, 'hoping that the whole Oxford team would be arrested for the outrage'. They were caught in the act and pursued by policemen - 'However, we were considerably faster than they were and before we went to bed we had time to dress up another statue […] as a memento of our stay'.

Despite the wealth of experience on the Cambridge team - and their best attempts to incriminate the opposition - the match was a victory for Oxford. After Cambridge sent them backpedalling at the first scrum, Oxford were fired up and managed to defy all expectations. The scores are annotated on the programme: they won with 1 goal and 2 tries (11 points) to Cambridge's 1 goal (5 points). Oxford's Leo Price, John Maxwell-Hyslop and try-scorer James Pitman were all called up to play for England a few months later.

Traditionally, the Varsity Match is held midweek in December. At times, the wintry conditions have proved challenging, notably during the 100th match in 1981, when the game was played with three to four inches of snow covering the pitch. With the exception of the war years, the match has been played at Twickenham Stadium every year from 1921 to 2019 and the Women's Varsity Match has also been held here since 2015, on the same day as the men's game. The events of 2020 put paid to tradition, however. After a two year hiatus, The Blues will return to Twickenham in April 2022.