LAST NIGHT in Cambridge there was a reunion of the 1961 rugby team, the only one ever to go through a season undefeated in the days when the university played all the leading club sides. Tonight they will meet up with their Varsity Match opponents in Oxford and then travel down tomorrow for this year's encounter at Twickenham, the 120th in a series dating back to 1872.
As ever on such occasions it will, no doubt, be noted that "it's not like it was in our day." When it comes to university sport, and Oxbridge's place within it, they would be absolutely right.
Forty years ago it was not uncommon for half those on show at Twickenham to become, and in some cases already to be, internationals. Graduate courses that were not always too demanding on the academic side helped keep standards up on the pitch through the 1980s and early 90s. But with rampant professionalism in rugby, how long will the Varsity Match retain its relevance, aside from being a pre-Christmas afternoon out for the City?
The Varsity Football Match was once played, it is hard to believe now, before a full house at Wembley. The fixture was downgraded to other London venues such as Craven Cottage and then to alternating between the Abbey Stadium, in Cambridge, and the Manor Ground in Oxford. Even the cricket version, the oldest, annually played first- class fixture, has been shunted to Fenner's and The Parks, while a one-day game was played for the first time at Lord's this summer. In a successful innovation, the women's game was played simultaneously on the Nursery Ground and actually provided the more exciting finish.
The Boat Race is probably safe on the Thames for some time yet but, as the Oxbridge crews go through their pre-Christmas trials later this week, knowledgeable rowing observers will tell you that the Dark Blues are not even the best rowing university in their city. That, apparently, is Oxford Brookes.
Where Oxbridge once provided a superb sporting platform for the privileged, educated elite, now other universities are providing an education for sportsmen and women. With the help of Lottery funding, High Performance Centres are based at places like Bath, home to the former national athletics coach Malcolm Arnold and the modern pentathlon squad that starred in Sydney, and Loughborough, whose avowed intent is to be the best sporting university in the country.
Only relatively recently have Oxford and Cambridge competed seriously in all sports under the British Universities Sports Association and they have not found it easy. "They possibly thought they were going to walk over everybody but that hasn't happened," said Nigel Mayglothling, a senior vice chair of BUSA. "They are solidly top 10, but not one and two."
Mayglothling describes the state of sport in universities as "very healthy", despite the changing climate brought about by the knock-on effect of the decline of sport in schools and the abolition of grants in favour of student loans. For all the headlines about drunken behaviour, students are working harder than ever before in a wider array of subjects, including more vocational courses like media studies and computer sciences, and face more timetabled lectures and lab work.
"If your match kicks off at 2.30 and you have a lecture from one until two, you might be able to make it if it is a home game," said Mayglothling. "But you can't if it's an away game. Of course, people miss lectures, but not as much now that they are paying for their education. They want value for what they are paying for. But participation rates remain good. It will never be as cheap to play sport after they leave university."
Durham, where they claim 98 per cent of their students take part in sport, is one of four Centres of Excellence set up by the English Cricket Board in addition to Oxford and Cambridge. Durham's Jamie Foster, under the …