Should Varsity be the pinnacle of the sporting season?

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Isaac Virchis – Yes

Oxford University sports teams for as long as records show have been facing off against their rivals Cambridge University once a season in what for every scholar-athlete is the pinnacle of their Oxford sporting career. Forget BUCS leagues, regional cups or fixtures against Brookes, if we are to be honest, the only thing that matters is beating the opposition from the ‘other place’ wearing an odd shade of greeny-blue.

No one can deny the rivalry that exists between the two institutions be it in academic tables, on the televised university challenge quiz or on the pitches, in the pools or wherever else Oxford sportspersons go in search of glory. Since 1209 when a group of scholars left Oxford, heading east to found a new school of academic learning, the Oxford student has fought tooth and nail to better their bitter rivals. Today this manifests itself in iconic sporting fixtures such as the Varsity Rugby match at Twickenham, The Boat Race on the Tideway and the Varsity Ski Races on the slopes of alpine resorts.

It should go without saying and be obvious to everyone involved in Oxford sport, be it as a fan or as a member of a club that the pinnacle of the sporting calendar is and should be the Varsity Match, but just to be sure I’ll explain to you why.

Firstly varsity is and should be the highlight of the Oxford sporting calendar because Cambridge view it as theirs. Whether we like it or not, for Cambridge the prospect of beating us at the varsity fixture represents the highlight of their sporting calendar. It is what drives their competitiveness and as such creates a crucible of intense sporting rivalry and competitiveness unmatched by any sporting fixture in the calendar. By its very nature the Varsity match has so much hype, so much attention and so much sheer competitive aggression imbued within it, from both sides, that it can only be the highlight of the season.

Secondly the nature of the ‘Blue’ the prestigious title awarded to the best of Oxford’s sportsmen and sportswomen is entirely dependent on the varsity match. The ‘Blue’ is only awarded upon participation in the varsity fixture and the fact that the two are linked in this way reinforces the reputation of the latter as the pinnacle of the season.

Lastly the varsity match is like no other competition in the season. It is unique because unlike BUCS leagues and cup competitions there is no runner up, no prizes for second place. No one remembers those who lost a varsity, only those who are victorious and whilst the losers are promptly forgotten, those who win are inscribed in the annals of Oxford sporting history. If that doesn’t justify varsity being the highlight of the Oxford sporting calendar, right where it truly belongs, I don’t know what will. 

Taylor Yu – No

Rivalries drive sports. If you’re a sports fan and have never developed any sort of irrational impulse to smack a rival fan right in his or her stupid little face, then congratulations, you’ve played yourself. Few things in life gets the blood boiling more than when your team – the team that represents you and where you’re from and what you believe in – faces its rival that seemingly embodies the darkest of all evils. Just ask any Arsenal fan when Tottenham swings by the Emirates, or any Bostonian when the Yankees or Lakers come to town – to say that one could cut the tension with a breadknife would be an understatement.

The Oxford-Cambridge rivalry is no different. If the duration of the rivalry should be a factor when determining its intensity, then I challenge you to find one more intense and significant than the mutual discontent that Oxford and Cambridge scholars have for one another. Beyond all the (questionable) academic rankings and all the tea-time arguments over who has the most Nobel winners, the rivalry extends its roots into the athletic arena, with historic events such as the boat race and the rugby varsity match drawing viewership from across the globe.

Yet as important as rivalries are to athletes and fans alike, sport is also about winning. With apologies to Drake, sports do come with trophies, and sometimes the balance between wanting to win and wanting to beat Cambridge becomes heavily tilted in the favour of the latter for fans and athletes alike. Diehard Cherwell Sport readers – all three of you – will have noticed that all of our match reports and season updates on Blues teams last term included something about how the team has its eyes set on the varsity match and how players are already foaming at the mouth at the thought of taking on the Light Blues, as if the varsity match is the major determinant of whether this season will be a success or not. This isn’t a criticism of the mind-set of Oxford student athletes – to question their motives and work ethic, and how much pride they take in representing and achieving success for Oxford would be doing them a great injustice. It’s more of an observation of the sporting culture that has engrained itself into the Oxford fabric, one that is built upon the insatiable desire of beating Cambridge.

In some cases, that goal is the equivalent of overall success – the Blues rugby union team isn’t part of any significant league, so the Varsity Match is essentially its championship match, and the same goes for rowing and the annual boat race. Yet for most competitive sports played here at Oxford, the teams are part of a bigger overall league that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves, and certainly not as much fanfare and hype as the varsity matches. Look at it this way – in about two months’ time, Oxford Men’s Blues football will take on Cambridge in a match that will garner the attention of hundreds of students, most of whom probably have no clue that Oxford was knocked out of the BUCS Tournament in the first round all the way back in late November by Kent. If the Blues beat Cambridge, will their season still be viewed as a success? More importantly, do fans even care?

The varsity match should most certainly be a highlight for any Oxford-affiliated team for reasons that extend way beyond sports, yet it should not be the highlight of the season – as justifiable as it is for fans and athletes alike to circle the varsity matches on their calendars, more attention should be paid to the bigger picture. Maybe I’m just not as immersed in the Oxford culture as I should be, or maybe I just don’t fully understand the historical roots behind the varsity games – all I know is that, as a sports fan, nothing feels better than being able to call your team champions, especially in front of your rivals. 

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