Women’s Varsity three decades on

A reflection on the inter-generational significance of tomorrow's game

Credit: Abby d'Cruz

When Oxford women take to the turf tomorrow there will be an added spring in their step, a zip to their movements, a heightened awareness of the large slice of history being made on their own personal patch of turf. For just the third time, and the first for many, they will reach the Twickenham turf.

The 30th anniversary of the Women’s Varsity Match is a unique occasion. Unique in that it meshes celebration and rivalry, representing a highly significant twist in the intertwined path that the two shades of blue have traced through the three decades of challenges that have determined where they are today.

The spectacle has not always been so grand. As the story goes, the contest was fashioned in a cantabrigian watering hole: a few drinks, a gauntlet laid down, and a challenge accepted.

St Hugh’s postgrad and Oxford Judo Blue Heather Bunting had been enlisted to drive to the Other Place a bunch of keen cricketers shy of transportation and, likely, manners. Unbeknownst to them, the journey would set into motion the beginnings of a contest at the vanguard of the development of Women’s rugby.

Bunting struck up conversation with fellow rugby nut Sophia Pegers, of Robinson College, and the duo began to formulate ad-hoc plans of a fixture in the mould of a Varsity Match. Players, kits, venues, officials: they would come later. Right then it was just pure ambition, enthusiasm, and determination that ensured the match would indeed take place. The journey home to Oxford would carry home a lot more than just the cricketers it brought.

And so, on Thursday 10th March 1988, Iffley Road played host to the first of thirty Varsity Matches, a tight affair decided 8-6 by a try from the Cambridge captain. A fitting tribute, to score the winning try, but Pegers (now Mirchandani) was unaware of the legacy she had entrenched.

She said: “I didn’t think about where it might go, or even if it would carry on.

“We were doing it because we wanted official recognition.”

Oxford borrowed shirts from the Men’s Greyhound side. Cambridge were vehemently denied the honour of the traditional white and blue and instead wore red. The first International game had taken place just five years earlier in Utrecht, The Netherlands; a Women’s RFU did not spring up until a year later in 1983. As Heather Bunting recalls, this was a venture into the complete unknown, a shot to nothing in the face of almighty odds: “We were playing to win but, having lost, I wasn’t sick as a parrot, I was just stunned we had pulled it off.”

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The fixture would go from strength to strength, college rugby proliferating as spectators turned players, Grange Road opening its doors to the idea a year later, and word of mouth becoming more organised recruitment.

Oxford would triumph for the next eight consecutive years – a record that today still stands – no doubt sculpting the rivalry that we see today, the winning mentality. But on the 30th anniversary, take a moment to appreciate, to celebrate, the duo who worked so incredibly hard to put the two teams in the position where they can go full throttle at one another.

It is their passion that is distilled in the pioneers who amalgamated the Men’s and Women’s rugby clubs at both universities, in those who fought to bring the Women’s game to Twickenham in 2016, and in those who ensure vital sponsors such as Hill adorn the shirts and continue to provide the funding so necessary for growth.

Former players from both institutions have been invited en masse to mark the occasion and support the current generation and will welcome the players to the pitch with a guard of honour. For players such as Oxford Captain Abby D’Cruz, who were not born when the rivalry was, a visit from Bunting (now Lawrence) helped to illustrate how far the contest, the rivalry, and the women’s game in general, has come in such a short space of time.

Speaking to the Varsity Match site, she echoed the amplified aura about this specific fixture: “The occasion is obviously a bit more significant for us this year, celebrating thirty years of women’s rugby at Oxford and Cambridge is huge, and I think really, really significant. It’s one of the oldest women’s rugby fixtures in the world, so having that knowledge going into it really adds to the occasion.”

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Only two weeks ago, Twickenham played host to another double-header as England Women defeated Ireland Women in front of over 10,000 fans upon conclusion of the Autumn International between England and Australia. The expansion of the Women’s game in the country is reflected by the recently celebrated decision from the RFU to offer 28 full-time contracts, enabling players to concentrate solely on their rugby, and for young girls with mindsets in the mould of Bunting and Pegers to genuinely aspire to play the game. It is a reflection of an England side who have reached the last five World Cup Finals, and six of the last seven (lifting the trophy in 2014).

Whatever happens tomorrow, whichever shade triumphs, the spirit of this most iconic duo will continue to thrive amongst both teams, and player of the match will be bestowed the honour of the Bunting-Pegers award.

For Abby D’Cruz, this is an opportunity to give something back. She said: “It’s thinking about all the women that came before us who’ve worn the crown and that just adds to the sense of occasion on the day.

“Really, I think for us the best gift we can give them is going out there and playing the Oxford game: carrying hard, hitting hard, just making sure we put it all out there. I think that’s the greatest way we can represent dark blue on the day.”

 

 

 

 

 

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