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 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 of The Varsity Matches.
The journey to The Varsity Matches day 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 has been 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 Match campaign starts in September of each year, before the start of Michaelmas Term, with pre-season training and an overseas tour. This gives 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 (Oxford) and Steele Bodger’s XV (Cambridge). 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 Match 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 The Varsity Match, 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 this hallowed fixture served as an unofficial trial, where selectors from the home nations were eager to see how a talented youngster performed on the bigger stage, or whether a more established figure was onform.
Over the years, more than 600 players from either Oxford or Cambridge have gained representative international honours.
The sole focus of each University, irrespective of the matches leading up to that moment when they stand side by side in the tunnel for the first time, is to win The Varsity Match.
There have been 138 matches played, with Cambridge leading Oxford 64 – 60 and 14 matches drawn. Today the match is watched by more than 25,000 spectators and over 500,000 television viewers.
The Women’s Varsity Match
The Women’s Varsity Match between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge was first played on 10th March 1988 at Iffley Road, Oxford.
The captains that day, Heather Lawrence (nee Bunting) and Sophia Mirchandani (nee Pegers), were keen rugby fans and were responsible for setting up a women’s team to compete against ‘the Other Place’ as at the time, there was no women’s rugby at either university.
They set out to find like-minded, adventurous types who would be interested in trying something different and ran fundraising events to raise the profile of the teams. It was a last-gasp try from Sophia Pegers, the Cambridge captain that won the day, 8-6, for the Light Blues in front of a crowd of a few hundred supporters.
These days the women’s clubs at Oxford and Cambridge are both fully integrated into the men’s organisations, sharing facilities and gaining access to first-class coaching. 2015 was a breakthrough year, with the women’s Varsity Match being held at Twickenham, the biggest rugby stage in the world, for the very first time.
The ‘Player of the Match’ now receives the Bunting-Pegers trophy, named in honour of the pioneering captains from 1988.
There have been 31 matches played, with Oxford leading Cambridge 19 – 14. The match is one of the biggest amateur women’s rugby matches in the world.
Men’s Varsity Match
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Women’s Varsity Match
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