The Oxford rugby team in Eastbourne while training for the 1935 Varsity Match. Prince Alexander Obolensky, third left, is pictured with his teammates. Picture Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Singing the Blues

The Varsity Match and Boat Race are no longer part of our sporting conversation


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Second World War was inconvenient for the BBC’s new Television Service. Launched at the end of 1936, its first outside broadcast was the coronation of George VI and by the end of 1938 there was a packed programme of live sporting events laid on for the 11,436 homes that then owned a television set.

The Varsity Match used to be where you saw players on the way up

As well as Wimbledon, the Lord’s Test match and a football international between England and Scotland, the BBC broadcast the Varsity Match, the first football game — rugby or association — to be televised in full, and the Boat Race, with John Snagge’s radio commentary laid over a graphic in which two magnetic boats were slowly moved along a chart of the course. Three live cameras covered the finish.

It was taken as read that those university challenges would be among the crown jewels at the dawn of broadcasting. They had long been part of the national sporting conversation — it was the 63rd Varsity Match and the 90th Boat Race — and even though the large majority of those watching or following in the newspapers would not have been to university, there was still the belief that these were the crucibles of heroes.

Two years earlier, Alexander Obolensky, a Russian émigré, had gone straight from impressing in the Varsity Match to scoring two of the finest tries seen at Twickenham as England beat the All Blacks. Oxbridge then meant a sporting as well as academic elitism, though perhaps not the latter for Obolensky, who graduated from Brasenose in 1938 with a gentleman’s fourth.

Almost 85 years later, few would still claim such importance for Oxbridge sport — certainly not for the rugby, which will be held on 2 April, the day before the Boat Race.

Both fixtures return to their spiritual homes after Covid and a temporary relocation. In 2021, the rowing was held on a stretch at Ely described by a former Cambridge cox as “bloody cold, bloody straight and bloody dull”. They will be pleased to return to Father Thames. The rugby is back at Twickenham, where it was first played in 1921, after a detour to Leicester, but with a change of date: rather than the traditional midweek in early December, it is now a Saturday in April.

Perhaps that will revive the flagging crowds. When I went to my first Varsity Match in 1995, there was a record crowd of 71,000. Over 25 years that has dwindled to about 23,000 in 2019, though still good for what is now a match of middling quality.

The Varsity Match used to be where you saw players on the way up — future Lions like Gerald Davies, Mike Gibson, Rob Andrew, Gavin Hastings. Now you get them on the way down. Some big names have played in recent years — Jamie Roberts, Joe Roff, and this year Toby Flood — but they have been fading internationals doing a postgraduate qualification as they end their playing career.

The colleges are an obligatory pathway if you want to be a professional sportsman in America

In 1995, Oxford’s star player was David Humphreys, who went on to win 72 caps for Ireland; in 2018, it was Ben Ransom, who I had seen score a fabulous try as a teenager for Blackheath ten years earlier. Now, after a few years of Premiership rugby for Saracens without cracking it, he was doing an MBA and wanting to be a banker. The stand-out player at the Varsity, he returned to Blackheath, in the third tier of club rugby, where he was unable to get into the starting XV. That says something about the comparable standard.

On the other hand, the Boat Race remains popular. The TV audience fell from 7.6 million in 2008 to below 3 million in 2019, but that may have been to do with the time of day and changing viewing habits generally — it still had 30 per cent of the available TV audience — but the riverbanks should be full from Putney to Mortlake with an estimated 200,000 spectators.

Unlike the rugby, it still attracts the top athletes. Fifteen of the competitors at the 2012 Olympics had been in the Boat Race, while this year’s two races (women were invited on to the Tideway in 2015) feature 13 Olympians, two of them gold medal-winners, and five others who have rowed internationally. Is it the quality on display that draws the interest, though, or the more animal attraction of a gruelling athletic endeavour — more than twice the length of an Olympic rowing race with bends and clashes of oars — and the hope of seeing a sinking?

What is certain is that, these two events aside, there is little to no interest in university sport in Britain. There are better rugby teams and rowing crews at some non-Oxbridge universities, but they struggle to gain attention. BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) organises competition in 52 sports for 6,000 teams across 850 leagues in 165 universities and colleges and it has a Twitter following of only 40,000. Its YouTube channel has 7,500 subscribers.

The best two student rugby teams, far better than Oxford and Cambridge now, are Hartpury College, specialising in agriculture in Gloucestershire since 1947, who are mid-table in the Championship, and Loughborough, who play in National 2 North, the fourth tier. When they last played each other in National 1, the attendance was 803. You don’t get many sponsors, certainly not TV stations, interested in that.

Compare this with college sport in the United States, where the interest and revenue levels are eye-watering. In 2019, the sports departments at American universities were said to have generated almost $19 billion in ticket sales, TV deals and sponsorships. The University of Texas has a 20-year broadcasting deal with ESPN to show its American football matches, analysis and behind-the-scenes packages worth $300 million. Go Longhorns!

Picture Credit: Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

In British university sport, the coach, the captain, the star player and the fixtures secretary are often the same person. The nutrition programme runs to a bag of oranges and perhaps some money behind the bar if they win.

In America, college coaches are the highest-paid public employee in 44 of the 50 states. The top ten each earned over $6 million in 2021 of whom the best remunerated, Nick Saban at the University of Alabama (above), got $9.75 million, more than all but the five best-paid professional football managers in Europe.

A big part of the reason is that ever since Yale first rowed against Harvard on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, colleges rather than clubs have been dominant in American sport and carefully built a very loyal and lucrative fanbase. Long after they have graduated from, say, Alabama, fans of the Crimson Tide will remain devoted to their football team and want to watch them, either on television or at the university’s 101,000-seat stadium. Twickenham seats 82,000.

The colleges are an obligatory pathway if you want to be a professional sportsman in America. Since 1990, the NFL has refused to allow clubs to sign players who are less than three years out of high school; the NBA has a similar rule. Superstars are therefore made at college — and they do it as amateurs.

Traditions refuse to die

It was only last year that the Supreme Court ruled that student athletes had the right to some of the profits from their image rights and paid appearances. Until then, the best they could hope for was a scholarship to cover their fees and room rent. In Britain, if you want to make it in professional sport you are almost advised not to waste three years of your youth at university but to enter an academy at a club from a very young age, certainly in the case of football but increasingly in rugby and cricket as well. It becomes cyclical: if the quality isn’t very good and no one is watching, what benefit is there for a young talent in going to university? And why should a company invest much in sponsoring it?

The exceptions prove the rule. Thirty years ago, Steve Palmer was the only footballer among the 3,000 playing full-time to have “Hons (Cantab)” on his CV, though probably not on the teamsheet. The engineering graduate signed for Ipswich Town while at university and was later sold to Watford for £135,000 (he expressed surprise that, unlike friends moving between City law firms, he had no say in it). His Cambridge contemporaries included a future England cricket captain, Mike Atherton, and a future Scotland rugby captain, Rob Wainwright. The universities no longer create future national captains in any of the leading sports.

This is one reason why Marylebone Cricket Club this year decided to drop the Oxford-Cambridge cricket match and Eton-Harrow, which had been played at Lord’s since 1805, from the summer’s fixture list.

Some members cried “wokery”, but these matches no longer produce even county cricketers, never mind internationals. In the past 20 years only Ed Smith, Zafar Ansari and Jamie Dalrymple have played for England after being in the Varsity Match.

The lunch interval during the annual Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord’s, 13 July 1934: the match was drawn

What’s more, as Andrew Connell noted in a letter to The Times, this change had been a long time coming. In 1982, Eton-Harrow was reduced from two days to one; 11 years later Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack moved it from “Other Matches at Lord’s” to “Schools Cricket”; and since 2010 the sport’s reference authority has not reported on the match at all.

Those two cricket matches, which will be played elsewhere, will eventually become esoteric curios, starved of investment and attention but still beloved by those in the know. They will go the way of things like the President’s Putter, the annual amateur golf match for old Blues played at Rye in January, which The Times covered from 1920 until 2015 but in the final years that was largely because their tradition of playing in plus-fours made for a good photo.

Similarly, The Times stopped running the “bumps charts”, showing the progress of the Oxbridge college rowing crews, in 2008. It no longer merited the space. I worked for the sports department then and took an angry call from a reader when we dropped Cambridge’s results. He finally calmed down but made me promise that if we were to drop Cambridge we would also not cover Oxford.

Fads in sport come and go. In the late nineteenth century, pedestrianism or long-distance walking attracted huge crowds. The Great Six Days Race in 1878, set up by the British politician Sir John Astley, drew 10,000 people to watch competitors run, stagger and finally crawl for 450 miles round a track. The winner got the equivalent of £500,000. No one goes to watch people walk today.

Sculling races were also huge at that time, especially for what they offered the betting market. Tens of thousands would be drawn to the riverbank to watch athletes compete in single combat. Now the Wingfield Sculls, which has decided the champion of the Thames since 1830 and was won five times by Sir Steve Redgrave, only attracts a handful of friends.

Yet traditions refuse to die. In 1721, Thomas Doggett, an Irish actor, died and left instructions in his will to continue an annual sculling race for Thames watermen between The Swan pub in London Bridge and The Swan pub in Chelsea. Three hundred years on, on 19 July, they will again compete for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a fine scarlet outfit and a silver medal featuring the horse of the royal house of Hanover and the word “Liberty”.

And while it will not be televised or watched by tens of thousands, those who do happen to see the rowers churn past can satisfy themselves in knowing that they are witnessing something that is more than half a century older than the United States of America. Take that you Longhorns!

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