Everything you need to know about the history of The Varsity Matches. From the introduction of the women’s game right through to the original kit, we look into the storied past of this iconic rugby fixture.
The Varsity Matches, otherwise known as the Battle of the Blues, has been an iconic game between Oxford and Cambridge universities since 1872. Each year, these historical matches draw passionate crowds in their thousands to watch the men and women on each side collide at the home of rugby.
The game has survived two world wars, a pandemic, and seen the introduction of the women’s game. In order to truly grasp how far we’ve come, we need to dive into the storied past of a rivalry that has captured people’s attention for over a century.
The Early Years
The first fixture was in 1872, a year after Scotland had hosted England in the inaugural international match. The idea of playing the game came after Hamilton Anne Douglas-Hamilton, alumni, (Wellington & Trinity College) was delegated by Cambridge to travel to Oxford to meet Charles Bulpett, alumni, (Rugby & Trinity College) to discuss arrangements for the match. Why Hamilton was chosen is not clear. Neither man was captain of their club, although both were selected for the first Varsity Match, which was fixed for Saturday, 10 February 1872 at The Parks, Oxford. Despite now being known as the Battle of the Blues, Cambridge played the first match in pink… they would change to their blue kit in 1876. Until 1881 there was no referee of the fixture, with both universities providing an ‘umpire’ before then.
In 1921 the esteemed clash moved to the iconic Twickenham stadium, where it has been held ever since (apart from during the Covid-19 pandemic when it was held at Leicester’s Woolford Road Stadium). There were no ‘official’ Varsity Matches during wartime, but a series of games took place during the Second World War where Cambridge secured victories, Oxford was triumphant twice and one of the matches resulted in a draw. This set of fixtures all took place at either Oxford or Cambridge before returning to Twickenham once war was over.
In 1981, there was a four-inch layer of snow covering the hallowed Twickenham turf – yet the game went ahead! This was not the first time that weather had provided an intriguing subplot to the rivalry. In 1878 and 1879 the games had been postponed due to fog (they were replayed at a later date), while in 1919 the same culprit had meant the players were invisible to the spectators.
The Women’s Varsity Match
The Women’s Varsity Match 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 responsible for setting up a women’s team to compete against ‘the Other Place’ at the time, as 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 for the light blues in front of a crowd of a few hundred supporters.
Now, 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 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 35 matches played, with Oxford leading Cambridge 21 – 13 (1 draw). The match is becoming a highlight in the amateur women’s rugby calendar.
The more recent history of the game has been eventful too. In 2013 Oxford player Sam Egerton became the first person in the fixture’s history to be sent off for an off-the-ball incident. A year later, Oxford men recorded their biggest victory to date, defeating their fierce rivals 43-6. Cambridge men’s team has had their fair share of wins to shout about having recorded a 5-win streak on three separate occasions: 1972–76, 1980–84, and 1994–98. The Oxford men, however, hold the record for most consecutive wins claiming their sixth in a row in 2015.
The Oxford women’s team recorded a winning streak spanning 13 games between 1989-2001. In 2015 Cambridge secured a mammoth 52-0 victory over their rivals, a dominant result to say the least.
In 2016, the event was rebranded as The Varsity Matches to reflect the continued integration of the women’s game. In 2022 Jefferies, the largest independent, global, full-service investment banking firm, began its partnership with The Varsity Matches as the title sponsor for the fixture. The partnership looks to drive further engagement in gender diversity, LGBTQ+ awareness, and social change.
Almost 700 players from Oxford and Cambridge have played international rugby showcasing the high standards associated with the fixture. With 140 matches played and Cambridge leading Oxford 64 – 62 (with 14 matches drawn) in the men’s contest, while Oxford leads Cambridge 21 – 13 (with 1 match drawn) in the women’s series, this rich rivalry is alive and as closely fought as ever.
Tickets to witness the next chapter of history in the Varsity Matches are on sale now! You don’t want to miss out… secure your place at one of the world’s oldest sporting rivalries.