Looking back at the 2022/23 Varsity series

A First, a Blue, and a spouse. Among the many stereotypes that float around Oxford (and Cambridge too, I suppose), the “triumvirate of achievement” at Oxford still remains to be a goal for many. While a First doesn’t really come until Finals, and a spouse even less certain, a Blue is, to some extent, the most immediately achievable through hard work and dedication. Of course, Full Blues are great, but those donning the dark blue blazer aren’t the sportspeople of Oxford worth celebrating, and as this academic year slowly draws to a close, and most Varsity Matches having been concluded, let us look back on yet another year of Oxford sporting success.

With Oxford and Cambridge being high on the list of the world’s oldest institutes of higher education, it is no surprise that the Varsity Matches have had a long history. The first Varsity Match began in June 1827 when Charles Wordsworth, a then Classicist at Christ Church, Oxford, arranged a two-day cricket match between the two institutes. The first Boat Race, likewise arranged by Wordsworth and friends, was held in 1829 between Hambleden Lock and Henley Bridge. And while historic, the Varsity Matches have continued to broaden its scope, with the Dancesport and Croquet varsities having only begun in the 1960s and 70s. Irrespective of longevity, sport at Oxford, particularly varsities, has also been particularly strong in “vertical” integration: encouraging camaraderie and teamwork between all sorts of students, whether first year freshers or last year DPhils.

Burdened with all the traditions to uphold, it is no surprise that preparations for this sporting year began long before Freshers’ Week: Oxford University Yacht Club (OUYC) have a page on their website dedicated to providing information for incoming students and the Oxford University Golf Club (OUGC) held Q&A sessions on their social media to encourage a new batch of eager participants come Michaelmas 2022. And of course, Freshers’ Fair and the first few weeks of term were equally busy: filled with trials, socials, and, most likely, initiation ceremonies, many, including myself, were finally inducted into the community of Oxford Sport.

Although the annual Varsity Ski Trip in the Christmas break may seem to many as a welcome respite from a hectic and overwhelming first term, it also signalled the true beginning of the Varsity Matches with the Ski & Snowboard races taking place at Val Thorens. This year, Oxford and Cambridge were about evenly split, with Oxford taking home the Men’s Blues Team and Women’s Individual titles, and Cambridge the Women’s Blues and Men’s Individual. The results bode well for a yet another exciting year of rivalry and competition between the two.

So far, with results still coming through and some varsities yet to be held, Oxford has won 69 out of the 133 matches, just over half. And while events like the Boat Race didn’t go our way at all, the Oxford majority (so far) once again speaks testament to the Dark Blue’s hard work and dedication. From the rowing crews’ seemingly non-stop rows up and down the Thames, a staple sight to any who have visited Christ Church Meadows, to the unwavering emails from the Cross Country Club (OUCCC) captain Jared Martin reminding training, the sporting population at Oxford has, as ever, reminded students, faculty, and media alike that Oxford isn’t just an academic powerhouse.

So far, with results still coming through and some varsities yet to be held, Oxford has won 69 out of the 133 matches, just over half.

Of course, while a win at varsity probably ranks high in any sportsperson’s list of memorable moments, varsity is the culmination of a months of hard work, and for many, the season-long lead up to the Oxbridge showdown is just as exciting. Whether BUCS or travelling around the UK competing against clubs, these experiences really cement the camaraderie that develops. For first time American Football (OULAFC) player Maxi Grindley, it was difficult to choose between “winning Varsity” and the joy of the team being “promoted to BUCS Division one” when I spoke to him and asked for a favourite moment of the season. Equally, a celebration of Varsity is not only oriented towards the triumphs that Oxford has enjoyed on the pitch, but also off the pitch.

Personally, I was fortunate enough to represent Oxford in the Men’s second team (Divots) Varsity Match for golf up in Brora, Scotland, and while we didn’t quite manage to cinch a win against the Cambridge Stymies, the excitement and opportunity is still very much the highlight of my first year so far. Speaking to the Men’s Blues captain, Josh Fallows, a three-time Blues himself, he expressed similar sentiments, recalling that beyond the Blues winning their Varsity for the eighth time since 2013, “caddying in the Dinner match (the reserves match) for my teammate could be one of my favourite memories.”

While the mentioning of Varsity and the sporting population at Oxford may inspire a mental image something along the lines of dark blue blazers lounging around the Vincent’s Club with a pint of Pinkies in their hand, it has not stopped having that unique effect on the students, faculty, friends and family of Oxford. Whether it was the massive crowds gathered along the Thames in London for the Boat Race, or the various matches taking place in University Parks, Varsity is perhaps the best platform for the students of Oxford and Cambridge to take precious time away from their essays, problem sheets, tutorials, and exams and to engage in something they love. Ultimately, the spirit of Varsity, and a simple chant of “shoe the tabs,” is to bring together a people through common camaraderie, triumph, and Dark Blue pride.

Image description: An Oxford American Football player running with the ball

Image credit: Graeme Chesters