Rugby League Varsity Match
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The Rugby League Varsity Match is an annual rugby league match between Cambridge University and Oxford University. It is currently played in either Cambridge or Oxford on alternate years, usually in the first week of March.
The first Oxford versus Cambridge University match took place in 1981. The varsity match has discretionary full blue status. The two teams play for the KJ Lee Trophy which was donated by the father of a former Oxford player.
The first university rugby league game was between Leeds and Liverpool in 1968. A year later the Universities and Colleges Rugby League was formed after student pioneers fought hard to get the sport recognised in higher education.
A chance conversation between three Oxford students on a train to Wales to see the touring Australians defeat Wales sowed the seed of rugby league at Oxford, less than two years' later the first-ever Oxford club side, Oxford Sharks, an even mix of students and locals, took to a rented council pitch to play Peckham.
By the end of the 1976 season, they had won university recognition and were able to rename themselves Oxford University Rugby League Club, only the second-ever student team in the south of England.
Cambridge University Amateur Rugby League Football Club was formed in November 1980 by Dick McConnel, a former New Zealand Student International. Their first game took place on 2 December 1980 against Reading University which they lost 40–2. McConnel subsequently became a senior academic at St Johns College, Cambridge, and remains involved in the club.
The first Varsity match took place on Sunday 26 April 1981 at Craven Cottage, Oxford winning 16–9 in front of a crowd of over 800. The Oxford team was captained by Tim Muff and club President was Keith Lawson. The well known professional referee Mick Naughton took charge. The game was played two weeks later than originally scheduled due to a flooded pitch. This caused a problem in the Oxford camp as two regulars were forced to return to their native USA before the match. Two players, Pat Wall and Joe Horsley consequently made their rugby league debut in the rearranged fixture.
The first full rugby union Blue to play in the fixture was Cambridge scrum half Simon Roberts, who played under the name "Robert Simons" in the 1983 fixture at Maidstone. The first open double Blue was Oxford's John Risman, son of Bev Risman.
1990s - Cambridge Domination
Despite Oxford victories in 1990 and 1991, and the only draw in the series - in 1994, when Cambridge came back with two late tries to level in the last minute – the 1990s was a mainly a decade of Cambridge dominance. Much of this revolved around Ady Spencer, a double rugby union and rugby league blue who subsequently played professional rugby league for the London Broncos. Spencer became the focus of national controversy when he was banned by the Rugby Football Union in 1994 for his appearance in the 1994 Rugby Union Varsity match having already played Rugby League at a professional level (albeit unpaid) with the London Crusaders. This was the subject of an Early-Day Motion in the UK Parliament at Westminster .
The mud-ruined 1995 'Farsity' Match ended with a 16-8 Cambridge victory after 60 minutes play — and was rewarded with a front-page photograph in The Times. In 1998 Pcubed became the title sponsor of the "Pcubed Varsity Match" and remained the title sponsor until 2017 – possibly the longest running commercial title sponsorship in Rugby League.
By the turn of the millennium, Cambridge led the series 12-6, with a solitary draw.
Early 2000s and Sky Sports Involvement
The first-ever Old Boys Varsity was held before the 2002 game at Richmond, which Cambridge narrowly won. Around this time, the fixture began to receive more widespread media coverage, and in 2004, for the first time, was broadcast live on Sky Sports. The live broadcasting of the fixture, which continued until 2011, resulted in a move to the Twickenham Stoop.
The 17–16 winning margin for Cambridge in the 2005 Varsity Match was the closest in the events history, Cambridge coming back from 16–0 with 25 minutes left, half-back Alex Drysdale scoring two tries, setting up the third and slotting over a drop goal with less than ten minutes to go to secure victory for the Light Blues.
In 2006, Cambridge won 44–0. This was the first ever nilling in the history of the match, and resulted in widespread changes in the rugby league setup at Oxford. The most obvious changes were Oxford bringing in a new head coach, Dan Garbutt, and a dedicated strength and conditioning coach; the new coaching team immediately launched a regular second team in the BUCS competition. These two factors sowed the seed of Oxford domination for years to come.
Recent History - Oxford Domination
Oxford have won every match in the fixture since 2007, with the exception of 2009 (known as 'the Smibert blip'). This unprecedented run of success culminated in ten consecutive victories between 2010 and 2019.
Notable fixtures during this period were 2009, which represented the first year a reserve-grade Varsity match was played at St Mary's University, Twickenham; this was won by Oxford's 2nd XIII (the 'Maroons'). In the Varsity match itself, however, Cambridge extended their overall lead in the series with a 20–4 victory. This remains Cambridge’s last victory in the series.
2010 was the 30 year anniversary of the fixture and was marked with a pulsating clash in which Cambridge led 16–0 before Oxford scored 26 unanswered points and ultimately led 26–22 going into the last five minutes of the game. A try with the last play ensured a 32–22 victory.
The 2010s saw a series of heavy victories for Oxford, peaking with a record scoreline of 70-0 in 2016. During the ten year winning streak from 2010 to 2019 Oxford scored 440 points and conceded only 68; despite this domination, and Sky Sports no longer broadcasting the game, relocation to the Honourable Artillery Company in the City of London from 2013 to 2018 saw continued popular support for the event.
2019 was a milestone year when the 39th Rugby League Varsity match moved away from London and, for the first time in its history, was played in one of the two University cities, Cambridge. This move marked the start of a period where the match venue will alternate between Oxford and Cambridge.
By total wins
|Total matches||Cambridge victories||Oxford victories||Draws|
Most points scored in a Varsity Match:
Oxford: 70 (2016), Cambridge: 50 (1993)
Fewest points conceded in a Varsity Match:
Oxford: 0 (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016), Cambridge: 0 (2006)
Biggest winning margin in a Varsity Match:
Oxford: 70 (2016), Cambridge: 44 (2006)