With the first Varsity Match being played in 1872, it is one of the world’s longest running sporting fixtures. It represents the pinnacle of amateur and student rugby where two of the most prestigious universities in the world compete for the the title of Varsity holders. The relative length of a Varsity campaign compared to a conventional season is very short, culminating in the ultimate finale, the big day at Twickenham. The journey to Twickenham is a unique experience, endowing every player, coach and supporter with many precious memories and a spectacle steeped in tradition, pride and a culture of excellence. Despite the sometimes inclement conditions, the Varsity match was traditionally played at 2.00pm on the second Tuesday in December. However since 2007 it was played on a Thursday, continuing to attract large crowds.
The histories of both the Varsity Match and of rugby union are intertwined. Oxbridge rugby has been historically, and remains, at the forefront of the development and refinement of the game. Whilst Oxford and Cambridge are not professional teams, they remain a benchmark for the game through their promotion of the rugby’s traditional values and ideals. As the pinnacle of amateur sport, the Varsity Match is a unique and unmissable sporting event.
The Varsity campaign starts in September of each year, before the start of Michaelmas Term, with pre-season training and an overseas tour; an opportunity for the squad to get into winning ways and experience the hospitality of a foreign country. On their return the Blues will go head to head against a number of Premiership Clubs, some of the top rugby Universities in the country and in mid-November, the Major Stanley’s XV. Traditionally the highlight of the Varsity build-up, the match against the Major Stanley’s team sees the Blues come up against an invitational side for an evening of festival rugby. All the games and preparations build up to what is the defining moment, and highlight, of the season – the Varsity Match.
The match epitomises the age-old rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge Universities and at the same time illustrates the continuing vitality and spirit of amateur rugby. The importance of the contest is highlighted by the enormous contribution Oxbridge rugby and the Varsity Match have made to the development and refinement of the game of rugby over the last 135 years. Up until 1875 the Universities fielded 20 players a-side, as was the norm for Rugby football in those early years. In that year, the Universities and their respective Blues took the initiative and changed to 15 a-side. This caught on quickly and was adopted as the international standard in 1877.
Only a few short months after the first international rugby match, between England and Wales was played, the first ever Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge made its debut in February 1872 in Oxford’s ‘University Parks’. In that first match Oxford wore dark blue jerseys (the same as today, though at some stages they have worn white), and Cambridge played in pink, changing to their light blue and white in 1876 – and so the Dark and Light Blues were born. Ever since 1872, the Varsity has been played annually and is renowned as one of the most pulsating fixtures on the rugby calendar. The following year (February 1873) the return match was played in Cambridge on ‘Parkers Piece’. In 1877 it was decided to move the match to a neutral ground and the Kennington Oval – scene of England’s first home international fixture the previous year – was chosen.
During the 1880s the Varsity Match was played at a variety of venues including the Rectory Field, the home of Blackheath F.C. In December 1887, the match was moved to Queen’s Club in Fulham. The venue had only just opened and was considered to be the best sporting club in Europe. Queen’s Club continued to be the venue until the outbreak of the First World War, when all rugby matches, including Varsity, were suspended.
The Decembers of 1919 and 1920 again saw the Varsity Matches played at Queen’s Club. However, by this time, it was becoming too small to accommodate the growing crowds, so, consequently, in December 1921, the Varsity Match was moved to the Rugby Football Union’s ground at Twickenham where, except for the war years (when the match was played twice each year at Oxford and Cambridge respectively) it has been played ever since.
There was a time when the hallowed Varsity fixture served as an unofficial trial, where selectors from the home nations eager to see how a talented youngster performed on the bigger stage, or whether a more established figure was in form at the Varsity. Over the years, more than 600 players from either Oxford or Cambridge have gained representative international honours. OURFC has provided a breeding ground for a number of international players, during its existence, and this can be seen from the recent 2003 Rugby World Cup, where five players who once donned the Dark Blue shirt represented their home nations: Simon Danielli (Scotland, Blue 2000, 2001), Kevin Tkachuk (Canada, Blue 2001, 2002, 2003), David Humphreys (Ireland, Blue 1995), Joe Roff (Australia, Blue 2006, 2007) and Anton Oliver (New Zealand, Blue 2008).
The 2020 Varsity Match will be the 139th Match in the series, which currently sees Cambridge ahead with 64 wins to Oxford’s 60, with 14 matches drawn, most recently in 2003.