Forty years after making his debut in student rugby’s most famous fixture, ex-England full-back Alastair Hignell explains why this year’s match will be an occasion to cherish
By Alastair Hignell
What’s the Varsity Match about? Not so long ago, the question didn’t need to be asked, or answered. The annual encounter between Oxford and Cambridge was a fixed point in the sporting calendar. The City closed down for the day and the West Car Park filled up, bus-loads of prep schoolboys perched on the terraces and shrieked their allegiance, Fleet Street’s finest packed the press box and the rest of the rugby public settled down in front of their TV sets.
But these are different times. The fixture is no longer the only game of note to be played at Twickenham before Christmas, a showcase for current internationals and a stepping-stone for the stars of the future. Its importance, in elite rugby terms, is minimal. And yet, for a whole host of reasons – some personal, some historical, some sentimental – this season’s showpiece is set to be something special.
Honouring the fallen
A hundred years after the fixture was suspended following the outbreak of the First World War, Twickenham will get the chance to honour the 55 Blues who lost their lives in that conflict. A roll call will be read out before the Last Post is played, their pictures will appear in the programme and on the big screen, and there’ll be a wreath-laying ceremony at the RFU war memorial. It promises to be poignant.
While the extraordinary sacrifices made by Light and Dark Blues a century ago demands sober reflection, the efforts of the current players on behalf of official Varsity Match charity Leonard Cheshire Disability also deserve acknowledgement. I’m honoured to serve as a Trustee at the Charity whose goal is to help disabled people throughout the world to fulfil their potential and live the lives they choose.
The news that both sets of players took time out from their match preparations to visit the charity’s local services is both heart-warming and, I hope, a precursor to even closer ties.
Raising a glass
And, on top of all that, there’s the little matter of a 40th anniversary to celebrate. Back in 1974 I was a callow teenager making my Varsity Match bow in a Cambridge side that had just embarked on a run of success similar to that currently enjoyed by the Dark Blues. Forty years ago, we sneaked home by a point in a match that was every bit as nerve-wracking then as it sounds now. We’ll wander, very slowly, down memory lane – and we won’t be the only ones. Somewhere, in another part of Twickenham, the team of ‘64 will also be raising a glass…
The Varsity Match has a glorious past and shouldn’t be ashamed of celebrating it. Down the years millions have been touched by the magic of the occasion, of Twickenham and of the sport itself, and the challenge for the current custodians of the two clubs is to honour that past while at the same time celebrating the present and embracing the future.
The rugby landscape has changed out of all recognition, and the Varsity Match has had to change too. The Oxford and Cambridge players are not professionals and very few of them want to be.
They play rugby for the same reasons as we did all those years ago and for the reasons the majority of rugby players the world over still do – for the mental and physical challenge, the test of courage, wits and skill, and the deep and enduringly satisfying experience of operating as part of a team.
That, thank the Lord, has always been what rugby’s about, what the Varsity Match is about. It’s worth celebrating. Where better, when better to do so than at Twickenham on December 11th?
* The Varsity Match takes place on Thursday 11 December, 2.30pm kick-off. Tickets cost from £26 and are available from www.ticketmaster.co.uk