In my 65 years I have witnessed sporting events go up and down in popularity and esteem. Not so long ago the Cup Final, on the last Saturday of the football season, the Derby (on a first Wednesday in June) and the Boat Race were significant events on the sporting calendar. Similarity the rugby Varsity Match, on the first Tuesday in December, heralded the start of the Xmas festivities, as the City decamped to Headquarters.
It was actually the first rugby match I saw. In my prep school the sadistic headmaster stopped the geography lesson to watch the game and I can still recall his capable explanation of the rules of the game as we watched the old Bush black and white.
In the seventies I attended the Varsity Match with a friend of mine JC, who really got into the spirit of it with a Harry Worth hat and much jocularity fuelled by drink. On one such occasion the black Oxford centre Quist Arcton fumbled and Tony Greig ‘s South African brother Ian pounced. This led a group behind us to make very unfunny observations about an Afrikaans whacking a black man. I don’t quite know that came over me as I confronted the whole group. Suddenly I was shoulder to shoulder with JC, no mean rugby player himself, and they backed off. He said to me that he had no idea I was so anti-racist and respected my courageous though ill-considered stand. Last year I stumbled across Quist Arcton’s sister. He has now passed away, but she said they all went to the game as a family and were so proud.
That was possibly the high point of the Varsity Match for me. Afterwards I went along with my City chums, got drunk in the west car park, did not particularly enjoy myself and then made the cold journey back from Twickenham to London.
I watched the game yesterday, which Oxford won comfortably due to a much stronger pack. It was not of a very high standard to my untutored eye but, as ever, the game was played with brio. There were many gaps in the stadium. Has it suffered by a combination of moving the date, the standard of rugby compared to club and international, and has the City too changed?
I suspect the whole notion of a Varsity Match will soon be regarded as best contrived. In the case of the Boat Race, with crews with an average age of 28, hardly the gilded amateur youth of Chariots of Fire. Yet like the House of Lords, the Church of England, the BBC and Last Night of the Proms, it will remain as one of those quirky British institutions which we will be rather sad to see go.