Monday, December 06, 2004

Twickenham in December

Tomorrow will be the scene of an annual event that in many ways is quintessentially British, and seemingly becoming an increasing anachronism in the culture of British sport. I refer, of course, to the Varsity Match (in rugby union) - the contest between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, if your understanding of the world was derived purely from the Guardian (and if it is, I feel very sorry for you), then you would be unaware that this event was actually taking place. The last two years I have searched the paper for a mention of this event, and I have failed. If I have erred, please feel free to correct me, but the lack of prominence in itself is telling.

The reason I make such a big issue about this is that there will be a crowd of about 50,000 watching this match tomorrow, and the game will be of worldwide interest - from what I understand, fans in South Africa and Australia are particularly taken by the game. That attendance, of course, places the match of greater direct interest to most people than the capacity crowd at nearly all Premiership football grounds - and this an event invariably held on a Tuesday afternoon, not at a weekend.

And for all the friendly rivalry that exists between supporters of the two universities, the match ultimately is that - little more than a friendly receiving greater media exposure because of the historic nature of the two institutions themselves. It is this fact, I believe, which makes the match so special and worthy of retention well into the future. As was stated so correctly in the Times at the weekend, the standard of the match will probably be around the same as league level 4 - the first level at which league rugby is broken down into geographical leagues. Being a supporter of a team playing at this level, I can verify that the interest in these games is not particularly high, although it can command a local crowd. What, then, can the increased interest in the Varsity match be attributed to? The fact that it still represents an amateur ideal of sport in an age where "meaning" is attached by the media to just about any event where some sort of competitive structure can be given. Of course, in rugby, it harks back to a time even just a few years ago when the sport was strictly amateur, and in a sport where just 20 years ago the only competitive club match was in county or national cups, before the introduction of a league structure.

Of course, this appeal to amateurism can only take it so far. The high standard of the teams of the past has dissipated; the two sides prepare for the match by taking on the academy or development sides of the Premiership clubs, and not the top teams themselves as they used to in the past. Similarly, it used to be a match played between two teams largely composed of undergraduates; last year one started (from the two teams combined), and I think it will be the same year. This is regrettable - it turns it into as much a charade as the Boat Race, with the real skill being in finding the better postgraduates rather than being a properly representative team. That said, it has probably helped the match maintain its limited prominence, in contrast to, for example, the cricket match which is now largely an irrelevant sideshow.

Will the match sustain its popularity? I hope so, but it will probably have to put on either more compelling or more entertaining spectacles than it has done in the last few years. I hope it's somewhere between the two - turning it into an exhibition match will probably be its death knell, for part of the reason behind the interest is that it is still seen as a contest. Indeed, part of the reason that there is a declining interest in the Barbarians fixtures is because it is in many ways too uncompetitive, and thus of little interest to the non-rugby fan. The primary reason behind the Guardian's refusal to cover the match - that it is a match between two bastions of educational excellence - is the reason that it still maintains popularity, for it has managed to keep a guarantee of quality whilst tapping into the tradition of the match.

But there is another reason that I hope the match continues, and that is for its symbolism within each university. For by having teams of quality rugby players representing them in such a prominent manner, it sends out another message about the importance of university. Time at university is more than just time spent working, it is about the development of someone's character in total. Changing the way people think in an academic manner is part of this; but challenging their perceptions of the wider world is just as important within personal development. And participation in activities like rugby is a crucial part of this. If only for the sake of this symbolism, may the Varsity Match continue long into the future.