Teaching the old dog new tricks

There’s a pile of things that undergrads don’t appreciate about being undergrads: how easy it is to impress girls in their late teens, hangovers that only last a morning, and embarrassingly tolerant junior deans.

Another of those underappreciated things is getting to play team sports with a group of people you know and, usually, like. When I was working full-time, I missed the camaraderie and banter of a sports team more than almost anything else about uni life. Cracking jokes with colleagues about how you dominated that half-three meeting with a well-timed jest about fourth quarter earnings is far less entertaining than recounting your devastating right-foot step or sparkling footwork at the batting crease.

If you’re working a real job (i.e. not HR, advertising etc) it’s nigh on impossible to slink out of the office early enough to train with a team. Bosses, in my experience, rarely respond well to being told that your goal-kicking is sub-par but that you have been watching Carter YouTube clips all day and feel that you can iron out some technical shortcomings if you could just leave the office at 5.02pm to work on them.

And so, given that I was coming to Oxford after three or four years of unpleasant toil in the grim service of capital, I was pretty excited about college rugby this year. And it was excellent – I played with a great group of guys, we won some games, we drank beer, went on the occasional crew date (Oxford Brookes netball – you were magnificent). Sport is also one of the few ways that grads and undergrads get to interact and that, in itself, is worth the time investment.

However, there were a few things that are a little idiosyncratic about college sport, particularly when one is a little older. I’m sure I was just the same as an undergrad, but memory dims when surveying one’s old foibles and so the following stood out.

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I’ve never seen so much aggrieved bleating at referees in my life. It’s not just that some lads disagree with a decision, but more that they are genuinely appalled that someone had the temerity to penalise them. If I was a college rugby referee I’d issue a lot more yellow cards and probably a couple of sharp backhanders.

It’s very sensible, but I was a bit devastated that playing sport for your college didn’t make you a bigger deal around the quad. As an undergrad, all the young ladies in Australia would come out to cheer the college 1st XV and you couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a hero. A gender theorist would no doubt correctly point out that this was patriarchal conditioning and to be deplored, but it was nonetheless excellent if you were the recipient of said conditioning. Oxford girls are probably smarter and spend more time around gender theorists, alas. They realise that college sport is played at an abysmally low standard. I staggered up to a girl at an early bop and announced I was the fly-half for the college team and was therefore a big deal. She replied that she wasn’t sure whether she should feel more sorry for the team or me. While it stung a little at the time, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Well played, you’ll go far.’

There don’t appear to be a lot of tough blokes at Oxford. One lad hurt himself and started crying, coming across the field weeping and looking, I presume, for some sort of emotional sympathy. I did the only polite thing and looked away in embarrassment and mild disgust. Alas, this type of behaviour is not atypical.

There’s not much inter-team banter or sledging in college sport which, to my mind, removes at least half the fun. An afternoon is always more satisfying when you impugn the ability, breeding or mother of a rival. Perhaps the English are too polite for the fairly basic repartee pursued by Australian cricket players and that may well be a good thing, but a silent cricket game does drag somewhat. There’s a legendary story that circulates between Australian postgrads about an Aussie bowler who made an undergrad batsman cry by asking whether he had crossed the threshold into manhood and developed pubic hair (the fact that he cried is probably a good indication as to whether he had). While this is all horribly crude, it is nonetheless immensely humorous at the time and justifies writing off six hours to play mediocre cricket in marginal weather.

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Age is, indeed, wearisome and I am broken for days after a game of sport. As such, after- match drinks are more for pain-killing than for any social interaction. Undergrads should respect the longer recovery time required for battle-scarred veterans and fetch drinks for them at every opportunity.

Undergrads here are so desperately academically earnest. If you skip a Cuppers cricket semi-final to make a tutorial you are letting down a long and distinguished line of sportsmen who have scraped through Oxford with borderline thirds and sound batting averages

There are many more aspects of college sport that are worthy of comment, but time and space forbids. Don’t take it for granted, belittle your opponent at every opportunity, and remember that once you leave Oxford and commence full-time work, someone will ask you whether you miss college sport and you will reply, as did Wodehouse’s Mike, with ‘[A] nod. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”’