Another year of Tab-bashing

Jack Harrison picks out the potential highlights from this year’s Varsity competition

In 1209, scholars from the University of Oxford, escaping from hostile townsmen in the city, took refuge in the small English town of Cambridge – and thus, one of the world’s oldest rivalries was born. Over the succeeding centuries, generations of Britain’s brightest minds, seeking to outdo each other’s intellectual pursuits, sought new ways of proclaiming their institution as supreme over the other. Now, as we enter another year, the two old bastions of British academia prepare to contest Varsity matches in over 50 sports, from rugby to riding, kendo to korfball and fencing to Frisbee (apologies to fans of the latter sport, more affectionately and correctly known as ‘Ultimate’, but alliterative considerations had to be taken into account).

The Oxbridge Varsity has developed into a world-renowned feud that cannot fail to capture the imaginations and attentions of students and sports fans on both sides of the divide. The season’s main event is without question the Boat Race, contested first in 1829, which takes place in front of a huge crowd packed all the way along the Thames from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge and plenty more watching at home. In addition, the Henley Boat Races for lightweight, reserve and female Blues crews have grown in recent years into a major afternoon of high-quality rowing attended by many students from both universities.

Last December, a crowd of over 27,000 watched Oxford outclass their light blue opponents 21-10 in the rugby union Varsity match at Twickenham, a match also televised on Sky Sports. It is the history, the hype and the level of support for these contests that make the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity what it is – a rivalry quite unique in its importance no matter what the sporting discipline.

The major headlines naturally tend to focus on the Varsity’s flagship sports: rowing, rugby, football and cricket all benefit from fantastic venues, great publicity and large crowds – but they merely scratch the surface of what the Varsity has to offer. Other highlights of the annual calendar include the ice hockey Varsity match, which is widely recognised as the oldest rivalry in the history of ice hockey and is due to be taking place in Oxford in Hilary term. Oxford will also play host to the athletics Varsity in Trinity in an event incorporating a large team of students competing in the full range of track and field disciplines. Such events are the perfect opportunity for passionate Dark Blues to do their bit for the cause.

Over the complete series of Varsity matches last academic year, Oxford emerged triumphant, winning 52 matches to Cambridge’s 36, with one draw coming in the Women’s Hockey Varsity. Thus, a great many of Oxford’s sportsmen and women embark on their 2011-12 season seeking to defend their crowns against the oldest of enemies, and the very best wishes go out to every one of them. It is often said that nothing brings people together like war or sport, and the evidence of the way that the Oxbridge rivalry has grown throughout history is certainly testament to the latter.