It was once observed that you can’t make people decide they want to play rugby league; as a result, the game tends to spring up in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times. Way back in 1976, there were only three amateur clubs in the whole of the south of England, playing in a then struggling Southern amateur league and none of them outside London…
It hardly seemed the time to launch only the second-ever student team in the south – and that at Oxford University, where the rugby union club had the power to recruit players worldwide, field four teams, and attract 60, 000 spectators to their Varsity match at Twickenham. Yet a chance conversation between three Oxford students on a train to Wales to see Graeme Langlands’ touring Australians defeat the Welsh sowed the unlikely seed, and thanks to the hard work of club founders like secretary Mark Newbrook and manager Andrew Cudbertson, less than two years later the first-ever Oxford club side – an even mix of students and locals – took to a rented council pitch to play Peckham. Tries from undergraduates Paul Ince and John Longbottom meant Oxford trailed the mighty SARL champions by only three points at halftime – but that was typical of the rapid development of that early team under the efforts of Maori captain-coach Bob Mahuta.
Later in the season, the county RFU also instructed Oxford Old Boys RUFC to prevent the Oxford club from using their facilities to host the annual challenge match between the SARL and the English Universities and Colleges side. Mahuta was one of three Oxford players called up for the SARL side that day, and as a result, he was later banned for playing union for the Old Boys. It was a scandal which won national attention and led to questions being raised in Parliament. But it didn’t harm the league team, who by the end of their first season had won university recognition and were able to rename themselves Oxford University RLFC.
By the following year, with new recruits including the Cook Islands’ future foreign minister Howard Henry (the club’s top scorer that year), Oxford missed out on the league title only on points difference. Attention swiftly turned to launching the game at Cambridge, and the arrival in October 1980 of New Zealander Dick McConnell to lecture in engineering was the catalyst. Within weeks, McConnel and undergraduates Paul Gamble and Andy St John had organised an unofficial friendly with Oxford. Despite a complete absence of funding and their players having to appear under pseudonyms (usually as the firemen from kids’ TV series Trumpton), by the end of the following term, their results had been so impressive that a Varsity match was swiftly scheduled.
Held at Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC, a crowd of over 800 saw the plucky underdogs hold the much-more experienced Oxford for much of the game, with McConnell, nursing broken ribs scoring a fine solo try. But the goalkicking of Oxford’s Oldham-born skipper Dave Symonds, and a fine try from halfback partner Vernon Spencer, eventually saw the Dark Blues to a hard-fought win. Oxford even undertook a two-match tour of Paris at the end of the season.
The result was reversed the following year by a Gamble-inspired Cambridge side, and the two sides remained evenly matched through much of the 1980s as the game switched around various venues in the South, including Maidstone and Crystal Palace. By then, both clubs had smoothly made the transition to playing in regular student competition, and despite serious rugby union prejudices, the first full rugby union Blue to play in the fixture was Cambridge scrum half Simon Roberts, who played as Robert Simons in the 1983 fixture at Maidstone.
The first open double Blue was Oxford’s John Risman, son of Bev Risman, a British Lion in both codes. Risman jr was a late call-up to replace Neil Tunnicliffe – later to be chief executive of the Rugby Football League – who withdrew with an injured shoulder and was a 55th minute substitute in Oxford’s 1984 win. It is a rare year now where at least one player does not complete the Twickenham-Twickenham stoop double and the appeal of the League Varsity Match has drawn players not just from British, Australian and New Zealand backgrounds, but also from Iran, the USA, Canada, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Bermuda and Japan.
While Cambridge, under influential coach Mike Penistone, dominated much of the mid-eighties with three consecutive wins with a squad which included GB Student internationals Jamie Woodward and Nigel Warburton, and also undertook a groundbreaking 1988 tour of Australia. League became the niche sport to play at both universities, as a forward-thinking Oxford administration led by Tunnicliffe and Ed Wilson attracted a professional coach – Fulham hooker Dominic Cooper – upgraded the fixture list to include matches such as a trial game against the GB Students and organised PR stunts like a training session with GB coach Maurice Bamford. But standards had also risen to the extent that both clubs were regularly in the top six of the national SRL table, and Cooper’s foundations were built on by his successor, Bev Risman, who coached an underdog side to a narrow 1989 win which was decided by a try from Australian union international Ian Williams.
Risman’s successor, the flamboyant former Hull, London and Sheffield forward Tim Wilby, moulded that squad into a professional outfit which surprisingly lost the 1990 Varsity, but they then won two on the trot, made the 1992 Premiership final and included four players who had trial with London – halfback Anthony Shaw, fullback Dave Gladstone, prop Nathan Wood and back rower Nick Poletti – and a fifth, leading Student Rugby League try scorer of that season, Jason Tuckley, who interested Sheffield.
As that era ended, Cambridge established a new dominance which was to last until the turn of the century, with the major figure being Warrington-born stand-off Ady Spencer, who played in four Varsity matches, and also sparked a huge cross-code controversy similar in tone to that involving Bob Mahuta two decades earlier when he was banned from playing in the 1994 Union Varsity.
While the mud-ruined 1995 ‘Farsity’ Match ended as a draw after 60 minutes play – and was rewarded with a front-page photo in The Times – Cambridge resumed where they had left off, and even the graduation of Spencer and centre Iain Higgins to professional contracts with the London Broncos could not halt them. But Oxford, however, began to grow stronger, and with a more pro-active committee, even made a historic tour of the USA in 1999, in which they defeated the USA Students 42-38 after trailing 38-4 at half-time, and ran five-times US champion side Glen Mills close in front of 4, 000 spectators. They then earned a decisive 33-17 victory in 2000, prop John Hobart scoring two tries. Hobart was on board again for a sixth consecutive appearance as Oxford repeated the dose in 2001, overhauling the record set by St Helens-born halfback Phil Birchall in six years and both shades of Blue.
While success was coming on the field, off it the club became financially shaky. Without the resources of the bigger university clubs, the rugby league club has always relied on university funding, Varsity match funds and sponsorship to keep the club afloat. With the loss of the major sponsor and increased training costs that balance became much harder.
Two years ago, in an effort to safeguard the future of the club, Jeremy Shires and myself set up the 1976 Club, an Oxford Old Boys’ association. Through Jez’s efforts, the annual Old Boys match was resuscitated in 2001, although despite a fine try from 1982 skipper Andy Hart, the present were the first to hoist the new Sir Robert Mahuta Trophy after a 44-28 win. The trophy was inaugurated in memory of Oxford’s founding coach, who died last year after a distinguished political and academic career at home in New Zealand. With further hard work from Jez, Cambridge’s Ady Spencer and SRL Director Niel Wood, the first-ever Old Boys Varsity was held before the 2002 game at Richmond, which Oxford narrowly lost.
In the 2000s student rugby league has grown further in both Oxford and Cambridge and the annual Varsity match at the Twickenham Stoop attracted around 60,000 spectators when shown live on Sky Sports between 2004 and 2011. The now discretionary full blue sport has become increasingly competitive and the standard of play is increasing every year.
In recent years, Oxford have begun a period of unprecedented domination of the Varsity fixture – having, with the exception of 2009, won every match in the fixture since 2007. This now means the club has won the last 10 varsity matches, between 2010 and 2019. In addition to this, several reserve-grade varsity matches have been played in recent years – first won by the Oxford 2nd XIII, the ‘Maroons’ in 2009. After a period of the Blues varsity match being played at the Honourable Artillery Company, the 2019 varsity saw both Blues and Maroons fixtures played back-to-back in the first rugby league varsity match in Cambridge. The Blues achieved an unprecedented 10 varsity victories in a row, whilst the Maroons won the second of their re-installed reserve-grade fixture. 2020 see’s the 40th installation of the Rugby League Varsity, and a double header at Iffley Road is set to be a spectacle.
Rugby league in Oxford is an exciting and thrilling experience for both the players and the spectators and we welcome anyone who wishes to attend our matches or even better our famous socials.