The Cambridge scrum-half stands serenely behind the light blue pack. The Oxford line can do nothing but stand and wait. Bell’s hands cock, and the cycle whirrs into motion; the Cambridge forwards no longer engage in contact, but simply receive and burrow to the turf, entrusting their master conductor to engage checkmate. Bell has been supreme for 79 minutes and 59 seconds. 80 minutes exactly ticks over, and the ball is once again in Bell’s hands. Here’s the moment you’ve been dreaming of, son. Pluck the ball from the back of the ruck and absolutely leather it high into the depths of the inviting Twickenham stands.
It is in fact the only error that creeps into Bell’s game all day. It’s knocked on, a moment of untidiness that nonetheless stands out in a touch-perfect display. Only Bell can shed light on the thoughts that flickered through his mind in that moment. Had he been the de facto choice in this Cambridge unit, maybe the ball would’ve cannoned emphatically off his boot, but Chris Bell was called up to the first XV only weeks ago, when regular nine and four-time Blue Seb Tullie injured his knee. 20 years of age, an undergraduate studying History at Girton College, an unused substitute in last year’s triumph, thrown into the side this time around. It’s a good bet that amidst the fever pitch of those final seconds, the occasion finally engulfed its man.
The Varsity Match is the most venerable sporting duel between the shades of blue, once acting as the breeding ground, the ultimate arbiter for those who would go on to impact the international stage: Stuart Barnes and Rob Andrew as opposing fly-halves in the 1982, Tony Underwood as a flying winger and Phil de Glanville too later in the decade. That is not to say that high-calibre international talent no longer dons the iconic jerseys. For years, post-graduate study at Oxbridge has been gilded by the opportunity to take the field at Twickenham. Australians from Brian Smith to the late Dan Vickerman have captained Blue in the past. These acquisitions generate a wider scope of interest and indulge social media hype, but often lost on the occasion is the mutual benefit, the impact on the undergraduate body who form the beating heart of both clubs. This is what will continue to drive the fixture forward.
The BBC still dedicate coverage to the event, albeit relegating the women’s fixture to the red button. The issue is that the coverage must keep developing if it is to counter dwindling audiences. Unofficially, Oxford went into this year’s fixture looking to cement their place as the leading amateur rugby team in the northern hemisphere, having put Bucs Super Rugby champions Hartpury College, Irish champions Trinity, and a Collegiate All-American side all to the sword with eye-catching attacking rugby this season. However, there was no mention of such feats in the build-up. While the parables of old Varsity successes warmed the crisp December showpiece, it smacked of the lack of individuality afforded to the Match. A new face perhaps, but the same questions.
I watched the fixture in a student-packed bar in the Tignes Resort on the Varsity Ski Trip, and it was significant how the crowd were distinctly more enlivened by the talent of the undergraduates than their professional counterparts. It’s tempting to suggest that a showcase of amateur rugby should be exactly that, and its coverage should cast more of the spotlight on the 20-somethings who have grafted relentlessly throughout gruelling schedules to make their marks on the occasion.
Every year, there are players for whom the Varsity Match is their swansong. This year, for instance, was Ollie Phillips’ final performance in a distinguished career. For Oxbridge’s amateurs though, it is the biggest game of their entire lives, a rare opportunity to sample the high life their elders have revelled in. This is their time. It was genuinely invigorating that the best player in each shade of blue were both 20-year-olds: Bell with his electric handling and draconian movement, and Will Wilson with his powerful dynamism and combative propensity for the high ball. Both scored tries on the hallowed turf that will live long in the memory.
Upon returning from the trip I re-watched the game on iPlayer, watching the analysis cut short in the mountains a few days prior. It was genuinely disappointing then that the post-match interview failed to convey the injection of youth that had characterised the 136th Varsity fixture, instead deciding on a sentimental trip down memory lane with the 35-year-old Phillips and his self-confessed old legs.
“You’ve obviously lived the build-up to this match,” Inverdale enthused in his closing remarks, before leading on to the most pertinent question of the afternoon, and one that simply cannot be answered unless future coverage is shaken up to reflect the Varsity Match as it is today.
“But what will it actually mean to them?”