Club ties sideline oval ball tradition

November 22, 1996

Huw Richards reports on the future of that most ancient of university sports, rugby union, now that it is played by professionals and awash with lucre.

All other things were merely side issues. We played rugby, talked rugby, thought rugby and drank rugby. For one term we were professional gladiators, devoting all our time and energies to winning the Varsity Match."

Thus Rowe Harding, later captain of Wales and president of the Welsh Rugby Union, remembered his time at Cambridge in the 1920s. At the time he scandalised rugby union opinion, which regarded any hint of professionalism as the work of the devil. But Harding was merely two-thirds of a century before his time. With the game now going openly professional, today's British universities and colleges contain a considerable number of paid rugby gladiators.

This is hardly surprising. Rugby has always been closely linked to universities - Cambridge students codified it in the 1840s, enabling the spread of the game. Any sport played overwhelmingly by middle-class men between the ages of 20 and 30 will always have a substantial student presence. Statistics from the British Universities Sports Association show it to be among the most popular games at university representative level, with 6,500 players in 499 teams - including a fast-growing women's game. Only hockey and football come close.

The link between universities and rugby was reconfirmed by the selection of the England team to play Italy tomorrow. The new captain Phil de Glanville, like his predecessor Will Carling a Durham graduate, is a former England student player. So are all four players - Tim Stimpson, Adedayo Adebayo, Simon Shaw and Andy Gomersall - chosen for their debuts against Italy.

Nor is this an exclusively English phenomenon. The captain of Wales, Jon Humphries, made his first impact on the senior game at Cardiff Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff). Gregor Townsend, who led Scotland against Australia, won Scottish student caps. And Rob Wainwright, who normally captains Scotland and is favourite to lead the British Lions in South Africa this summer, went to Oxford.

But all these players were at university when top-class rugby union was, officially at least, an amateur game. The relationship between student life and fully professional sports like rugby league and football is a much looser one. Rugby league, which has been professional at its highest levels since the late 1890s and draws on a northern working-class social base, had to wait until the late 1960s and the post-Robbins expansion to appear in universities. For the vast majority of the 6,500 student rugby union players, the game's recent move to professionalism will make no difference at all. The third-team hooker at Teesside is unlikely to be confronted by Newcastle manager Rob Andrew brandishing a large cheque. Nor will it transform the student game into a simulacrum of the United States, where huge live and television audiences watch college basketball and football. The economic base simply is not there.

Only one student match - Oxford and Cambridge's annual meeting in early December - pulls in a serious audience. But this, like the boat race, says more about the mystique of Oxbridge than about playing standards. Almost certainly the best student team in Britain is that of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. UWIC plays its Welsh National League Second Division matches in front of crowds of a few hundred. Its victory over Loughborough in last season's BUSA final at Twickenham attracted a few thousand, less than a tenth of the crowd that will attend the Oxbridge clash.

It is at this level that the changes in the game are being felt. It is not so much that attitudes have changed - as Harding's comment shows, full-time commitment was long-established in the amateur game. Harding and his contemporaries also had the advantage of a more relaxed academic climate which (though unable to accommodate such extreme cases as Oxford cricketer Ian Peebles - who was told after his first year law exams that "you achieved 1 per cent on one paper, and were not quite so successful in the others") was more prepared to make allowances for the athletically gifted. An alarmingly persistent legend tells of the medical school dean who would test interviewees by throwing a rugby ball as they came through the door. If they caught it they were in, if they drop-kicked it back they were awarded scholarships.

But for more recent students there has been a serious balancing act between academic work and sport. As Bob Reeves, coach of Bristol University and the England Students team, says: "It is extremely difficult to apply yourself to doing two different things well at the same time". Fitting in your academic programme together with training for university and club teams - plus a club match at the weekend and a university fixture on Wednesday afternoon - demands commitment and a fair degree of organisation.

But no compulsion. Before the game went professional the rugby-playing student submitted himself to this sporting-academic treadmill voluntarily. He might get tired and complain about pressure. But he was doing it because he liked playing rugby and was good at it. There was always the option of walking away, or telling his club "Sorry I won't be available for those two games. I've got exams".

This is where the balance has changed. The club is now an employer. It can demand that you attend training every day and fly out to Bucharest on Friday for a European match. It can also stop you from playing for anyone else - after all you don't want to lose your loosehead prop for the visit to Leicester because some maladroit student trod on his ankle during a college game in midweek.

Reeves says: "We have five players who are contracted to clubs. Four of them are rarely available because of the requirements of those contracts". And even where they are, he may be reluctant to play them. "The top club game is so intensive now that even when they're available I sometimes have to tell them 'You're knackered, you need a rest".

Several universities have gone into partnership with clubs to run rugby scholarships - Bath is linked to the local university and Harlequins to Surrey. Bath in particular saw the offer of help with education as a potential counter to the big money on offer from London clubs, and the university requires that the scholars make a contribution to rugby in the institution. But it does not require that they play in university teams.

The one reliable route to holding your own players is that practised by UWIC. Because UWIC plays in the Welsh Rugby Union's professional competition, it can insist on the same exclusive rights as any other club - to the great irritation of clubs which were in the past able to mine the institute's stock of talent. UWIC even pays its players - Pounds 15 per match with a Pounds 5 win bonus - although this is nowhere near the amount some students have been offered by other clubs, and the money is generated by the club. The library is not going short to pay for rugby players.

Promoted four times in the last six seasons the team is holding its own in Division Two and has had two players - prop Ben Evans and centre Rhys Shorney - picked for senior Wales squads this season.

The UWIC route is not an option for most university clubs, which lack the playing resources to commit to going fully into senior rugby. Reeves foresees a shift of emphasis, with both university and representative sides catering to the group immediately below the very top. But the odds are that a high proportion of top players will still go to university. The reasons are partly sociological - most come from backgrounds where higher education is a built-in expectation. Professional sporting careers are short and insecure, so building up other skills and qualifications makes long-term sense. And De Glanville found the most compelling reason of the lot: "You need to do something else as well. I'd get bored if I did nothing but train and play rugby". For many being a student will be a sensible and worthwhile variety of "something else".

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