Battle of the blues
Former Oxford skipper Tyrone Howe tells skysports.com why the Varsity match is such a unique experience.
Last Updated: 09/12/09 5:42pm
Tyrone Howe tells skysports.com why the Varsity match is such a unique experience.
Howe, who played on the wing for Ulster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, played for Oxford in 1994 and 1995 and says there is nothing quite like a Oxford v Cambridge clash.
"I played in '94 and I captained Oxford in'95 and it is a most unique experience," Howe told skysports.com.
"As a rugby player you are used to playing in a league or a cup competition but here you are invariably preparing for twelve weeks for just one game of eighty minutes.
"It is a very strange situation to be in when you realise that no other result actually matters and it all depends on this game. You are very aware of the tradition and the history behind the fixture and it all contributes to a very intense build up to the game.
"There are enormous levels of emotion going into the game and ultimately enormous levels of emotion after the game no matter if you win or lose. I would have to say one of the very few regrets I have in my career was that I was not on a winning side in a varsity match.
"I lost in my first year and in my second year we lost in the very last minute by two points," added Howe.
"That game we lost by two points was also the first penalty try ever given, that decision was taken by Tony Spreadbury and he still has the old chuckle about it with David Humphreys - who scored all our points that day - and myself.
"When there is so much effort that goes into it and there is this almost nonsensical rivalry about it which just seems to grow over those 12 weeks. It means absolutely everything to you and once you step out onto the pitch nothing else matters. It is a wonderful opportunity and something to really cherish.
"I found coming from Northern Ireland that taking part in something that was so part of rugby history and rugby tradition was huge. One of the striking parts of varsity rugby is that mixture of nationalities which is very similar to the Barbarians. Having only ever played with people from Ireland I was suddenly playing with Australians, South Africans, a French guy and some English guys. It was a real, mix and a real experience. It was one of the few occasions when you get that opportunity."
Howe loves the tradition of the varsity match and longs for one tradition of this fixture to make a return.
"In 1996 I was the last person to run the lines for Oxford and I have to say I thought it was one of the best rugby traditions that they had and I would love them to go back to having ex captains running the line.
"It was extraordinary - you were in your kit with your Oxford blazer and used your scarf as your flag. I remember coming out and trying to keep up with the game. Talk about pressure on the pitch, but heck running the line for Oxford was almost as bad.
"It is one of the great traditions in rugby and I think the players would be more than happy to have that happen again."
The Dark Blues may have more experience with ten of their side boasting Varsity involvement compared to Cambridge's nine however Cambridge lead the series with a 60 to 53 advantage. Oxford hold the current boasting rights after their 33-29 win last year with winger Tim Catling stealing the show with a hat-trick. However Howe says that form means nothing when you head into the Varsity match.
"One of the classic elements to the Varsity match is that you almost do not want to go into the match as favourites," explained Howe who scored six tries in 14 tests for Ireland.
"It is a game that is totally made for the under dog because results just don't matter. It does not matter if you have won every single match coming into it or lost every single match - all that counts is the next 80 minutes.
"You always find one or two individuals either acting incredibly positive to the experience or making out of character mistakes. It is amazing what that varsity match atmosphere and pressure can do to you so it is vital to remain calm and make sure you are doing the basics as well as you can. But it is certainly a game for the underdogs."
Wallaby lock Daniel Vickerman is the latest high profile player to play in the varsity match which is also has a proud tradition of showcasing the stars of tomorrow, with the likes of Sky's very own Stuart Barnes, Gavin Hastings, Tony Underwood, and Rob Andrew all featuring.
"Players who have played in the varsity match will only absolutely rave about it. Some who have not experienced it may be slightly demeaning towards it, but it must have something when you have had players like Joe Roff and Anton Oliver playing in it.
"This year Daniel Vickerman skippers Cambridge and it goes to show how much these players rate it if they want to play in it.
"It has something very special that is very hard to describe and is quite intangible but it attracts the best players in the world."
Tyrone Howe is part of Sky Sports' exclusively live and HD coverage of the Varsity match