Thursday 8th December will see Oxford take on Cambridge at Twickenham in the 135th Varsity Match. We caught up with Rob Andrew MBE, who first made his name in The Varsity Match and went on to win 71 caps for England and 5 more on two British Lions tours, to hear about his experiences of the historic fixture.
Having enjoyed a stellar international rugby career, where does The Varsity Match rank in your sporting memories?
At the time it was by far the biggest game of my life. I’d never even visited Twickenham before my first Varsity Match, so running out as a 19-year-old in front of 35,000 people remains one of the salient moments of my career.
Are you still in touch with any of your Cambridge team mates?
I was lucky to play in The Varsity Match three times and we won on each occasion. Few sports can cement friendships as well as rugby and our success only strengthened those ties further. I made some lifelong friends during my time with the team and we recently had pretty much a full turn out for the 30-year reunion.
Has the Varsity experience changed since you played?
Obviously my Varsity days were back in the amateur era, where rugby fitted in around work and education, meaning more top players were available, but the spirit of the match remains the same. Despite the increased demands on modern professionals, there’s definitely still a place for them to play in The Varsity Match, though it’s likely to be at one end of their careers or the other.
There are plenty of players who do not mature early enough to play professionally before they are 21 and, for them, the Varsity can offer a fantastic and valuable experience. For older guys, it can give a great opportunity to enjoy the old amateur traditions of rugby while they start to explore their next careers.
Does the game still enjoy as high a profile as it did?
I think so. It’s still televised and always seems to pull a crowd. With its incredibly rich history, The Varsity Match should remain as a bastion of rugby. At a time when pitches are being made to look ever smaller by increasingly big and fast professional players, the entertainment and novelty value of an amateur match between two of the world’s oldest universities, with nearly 150 years of history behind it, deserves to be cherished by the sport.
Did playing in The Varsity Match help your progress to the England team?
Yes it did and surprisingly quickly. We took a fantastic win in my final match in December ’84 and I was called up for England v Romania in January ’85. The next month I went on to play in the Five Nations and never looked back.
What was it like to play international rugby while still a student?
It was a little strange at the time as it was fairly high profile in the media. Having said that, the media back then was just TV and print, not the all-consuming multi-media circus we have today. I didn’t have to pose for many photographs while walking to lectures.
It takes most people a few seasons to bed in to international rugby as the pace of the game is like nothing else, so you can only learn on the hoof. England weren’t playing the best rugby during my first years with the team, so that probably helped ease the pressure a little.
How does that experience differ from that of modern players?
In the amateur era, sport was a release from real life. We gained our life experience through work and playing rugby with guys from all backgrounds and careers. It could almost be said the reverse is true for modern players. Don’t get me wrong, rugby is still a hugely enriching environment, but you can’t have the variety that used to exist when everyone in the changing room plays sport full time. The dedication needed to thrive in the professional game means their world narrows much earlier and everything they do goes under the microscope. It’s a tough environment.
What’s being done to help them?
The clubs and the RFU, along with organizations like the RPA and RBN, are helping the athletes to develop the life skills they need to be better players and to succeed beyond the game. It’s been shown time and again that better life balance gives more rounded players who are likely to make better decisions.
Is it working?
There has been a shift in the last few years with the messages really seeming to hit home. We’ve now had a generation go through the professional ranks and they’re well-equipped to pass on their experiences and advice. Also, universities and colleges have helped by offering incredibly flexible courses for professional sportspeople.
You were involved in player development during your time at the RFU – what led to the U20’s impressive recent successes?
In the early days of the age-group world cups, there was quite a gap between the hemispheres and, though we put in some brave performances, we basically got beaten up. In ‘07 there was still an obvious physical disparity that no level of skill was going to overcome. We set about closing that gap and our efforts could loosely be split into three separate areas.
The first and non-negotiable area was physical preparation. We absolutely had to put in place the conditioning programmes that would allow us to complete. I hate the term ‘gym monkey’, as it often makes the ignorant assumption that we encourage nothing but weights at the expense of producing good rugby players. We simply had to be strong enough to compete on a level playing field and the big Junior All Black teams were only getting bigger.
At the same time, we had to develop skillsets, especially among the forwards, that allowed us to play the game we aspired to play. It required support down through the age groups from the international, academy, club and school coaches and, thankfully, we got that.
Finally, we needed, at younger ages, to instil a culture of increased technical knowledge combined with the ability to make good decisions under pressure. That was the final piece of the jigsaw that led to the incredible success of the last few years.
We started to beat Australia and South Africa on a fairly regular basis and made our first age-group final in ’08. From there we kicked on and England have now won three of the last four U20’s World Cups.
Having left the RFU after ten years, what are your plans?
I’m having my first break from professional rugby for 21 years, so I’m enjoying the opportunity to take stock. I’ve had a few approaches, including some from other sports, but I won’t be rushing in to anything. Regardless of the direction I take, I’ll always be involved in rugby in some capacity.