I should probably provide one or two bits of background here, both on my connection to the event, and on the arcane terminology of Oxford and Cambridge.
The first bit's easy. I played rugby for Cambridge University when I was a student. For the women's team that is.
The next bit is more complicated, if you didn't happen to attend Oxford or Cambridge, in which case you can skip the next paragraph. Go on, nothing to see here.
Oxford and Cambridge both have a system of awarding a "blue" in competitive sports. This honour comes in the form of a "full blue", a "half blue" or "colours". It's very prestigious to receive one, and there are some complex rules relating to them. Only sports in which the university is deemed to be competing at the highest (national) level, with support and participation also occurring across the whole university are deemed worthy of a full blue. If the sport doesn't have such wide representation, or the standard is lower (county level rather than national level) then a half-blue is awarded. If it's really not that great, then you receive "colours". If you play in the second team of a full-blue sport, then you are often eligible for a half-blue, and in the second team of a half-blue sport, then you may receive your colours. With me so far? There's a big "but" though - you only get any of these awards if you compete in the Varsity Match for your sport. And in the case of Oxford and Cambridge, the Varsity Match is the one held between (you've guessed it) Oxford and Cambridge.
While I was at Cambridge, women's rugby was a half-blue sport. That was a fair status I think, as we weren't anywhere near the best university side in the country, and had a complete and utter lack of support from the well-funded, well-provisioned men's club. They wouldn't even let us play on their pitch. Seriously. We were allowed to practice on their training pitch, but I don't think I ever even set foot on their hallowed turf. We had to play all our matches on Sundays as no college would let women use their pitch on a Saturday. We did however have pretty widespread participation across the university, with a Sevens league and a two-day, fast and furious, Sevens tournament between most of the colleges. Some colleges even mustered two teams.
Conversely, while women's rugby at Cambridge was a half-blue sport, at Oxford it was a full-blue sport. To be fair, they did beat us every time we faced them, but it still felt a little unfair. (Note: I will return to this asymmetry later. With venom.)
So, aside from being rather irritated at the way the men's game treated us like second-class citizens, I had one or two other issues with playing a University-level sport. They're not dissimilar to the things I've complained about regarding school sports. We were coached by a man called Ashpit. I have no idea what relation this moniker had to his actual name. Perhaps it was his surname? I never knew. What I did know, almost as soon as I started to play, was that he had favourites. There was a clique who were almost guaranteed a place in the team. They were 'mates' with Ashpit. The kind of 'mates' who laughed and joked and jostled together, and then went silent when someone from the outside came near. And that was the rest of us in the club. (Ashpit did also have some sidekicks, but I can't actually remember their names, they made so little impression on me.)
As I've mentioned before, I'm "quite good" at sport. Not brilliant, not terrible, but definitely above average. I'm quite quick, quite good at catching and quite good at throwing. And by being "quite good" I ended up in the 1st XV squad. I trained with the 1st XV, I was selected for the residential training camp with the 1st XV, and I went to an awful lot of 1st XV matches. And stood on the sidelines in the freezing cold, losing sensation in my feet and never being substituted on. Apparently I lacked match experience. Who'd have thought it? Some of the time I wasn't selected for the match-day squad, and instead played for the 2nd XV, which was considerably more fun, with a better team spirit and greater sense of inclusiveness. But none of the coaching staff ever came to the 2nd XV matches. That's right, they never came to watch us play. So they never saw our strengths or weaknesses. They never found out where we needed more coaching, they never gave any effort to developing the 2nd XV. It was all about the 1st XV. And that meant that, almost without fail every week, a select few were given the chance to play and the rest of us worked and trained and strove and were ignored.
Here's what we used to do:
- Monday - rest day
- Tuesday night - 2 hours general training
- Wednesday lunchtime - 1 hour weight training
- Thursday night - 2 hours general training
- Friday lunchtime - 1 hour fitness training
- Saturday morning - 1 hour pre-match run-throughs and tactics
- Sunday - match day
We gave our time six days a week, we bought our own kit, we paid our subscriptions and travel costs. And just as an example of how much time or care went into "the rest of us" - I was selected to play at fullback, and never given any training or tips on kicking the damn ball. No spot kicking, no drop kicking, no kicking from the hand, nothing. I asked for some help once. I was told I was welcome to stay at the pitch at the end of training and practice on my own. Wow. That's a commitment to developing your players isn't it? But then, there was already a really good fullback, so why bother with me? I actually wish Ashpit, whoever the hell he was, could read this, and know how much goodwill, willingness and enthusiasm he trampled on. Know how many people, like me, might have carried on playing beyond university if it weren't for being so demoralised by the experience. Know how much I loved playing, actually playing, in rugby matches, and how much of a waste of effort and work and passion it is to put someone on the bench and leave them there.
So, back to the Varsity Match...
Having been on the 1st XV squad on and off for most of the year, when the squad for the Varsity Match was posted, I was gutted to find I was not on it. No hope of a half-blue for me. No chance of playing in the defining match of the year. (Though, let's be honest, I'd have stood on the sidelines getting cold, so I'd just have missed a half-blue in a different way). Take a deep breath and mentally prepare for the 2nd XV match. The 2nd XV squad were my compatriots. Friendly, motivated, welcoming. Unlike the 1st XV, I felt part of the 2nd XV when I played, and I knew we could go out there and give it our all.
And then... the day before the match... Oxford pulled out. They confessed that they didn't actually have a 2nd XV. A full-blue sport in Oxford and they couldn't even muster a 2nd XV? And they strung us along all bloody year, arranged the fixture and only then, at the eleventh hour, did they have the guts to admit they didn't have a team. We were beyond angry. Disappointed didn't come close to describing it. We had had the match of the year snatched from us, by the age old enemy, and one who had the gall to award a full-blue against our half-blue when they didn't even have enough players to muster two teams from a whole university. And there went my chance of being awarded my university colours.
En masse, the 2nd XV refused to go to Oxford on the day of the match. We weren't even prepared to go to support the 1st XV. We had been let down, betrayed, and given no support or sympathy from the Chosen Few from our own club, or from our so-called coaching team (you remember them, they're the ones who never came to watch us play).
It's coming up for twenty years now, so it's probably about time I stopped feeling so aggrieved with Ashpit and his helpers; stopped resenting the favoured few who were always on the pitch; stopped being angry with Oxford for letting us down. The fact that the women are not only allowed to play on the men's pitch now, but have been invited to play at Twickenham, the home of rugby, suggests that perhaps at least the attitude to women's rugby has moved on. Maybe I'll go and watch this year. To make up for not watching my club-mates in 1996. Maybe.
I shall end with a snippet from the 2nd XV team song, and the recollection of singing it while marching arm in arm down the road with Piglet and Tigger* to acquire more wine, having tragically run out in our own rooms ...
We never climbed the highest mountain
We never crossed the deepest stream
We are a bunch of drunken animals
We are the CAMBRIDGE SECOND FIFTEEN!
* It was Tigger who suggested I join her in playing rugby. So I have her to thank for the highs and the lows of university sport. Despite the above grumble, I remain glad that I played, so I think Tigger deserves some thanks. Thank you Tigger!