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The Varsity Match is an annual rugby union fixture played between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England. The event began in 1872, with interruptions only for the two World Wars. Since 1921, the game has been played at Twickenham Stadium, London. It is normally played in early December.
Following the 132nd match in 2013, Oxford have 57 wins, and Cambridge maintain the lead with 61; 14 games have ended in draws. Varsity matches between Oxford and Cambridge are also arranged in various other sports. For example, the first recorded water polo match in history was played between Oxford and Cambridge in 1891.
The history of The Varsity Match extends back to early 1872. It was a year after the first ever rugby international (England v Scotland). Both Cambridge and Oxford sent officials to meet and arrange a match between each other. At The Parks, Oxford, they played a 20 a-side version of the game (as opposed to today's 15 a-side games; the teams would be set to 15 a-side by 1875). Oxford won the inaugural meeting. In that first match, Oxford wore dark blue jerseys (the same as today, though at some stages they wore white), however, Cambridge played in pink, changing to their blue and white in 1876.
The second Varsity Match in 1873 was played at Parker's Piece in Cambridge, but since then it has always been played in London. The Oval in Kennington staged seven matches, three games were played at Richardson's Field in Blackheath and another Blackheath venue, Rectory Field, hosted four games before Queen's Club in Kensington became the regular venue from 1887 to 1920. The 1878 and 1879 matches were postponed due to fog. In 1919, the players were apparently invisible due to fog. In 1921 the match was moved to the Rugby Football Union's famous home ground, Twickenham. The official Varsity Match was not played during wartime although a series of matches were played during the Second World War, resulting in nine wins for Cambridge, two wins for Oxford and one draw. All these games were played either at Oxford or Cambridge. The hundredth match in 1981 was played at Twickenham with a three to four-inch layer of snow covering the pitch; it had snowed overnight and the snow could not be removed in time for the game. In 2013 Oxford's Sam Egerton was sent off for an off-the-ball incident and became the first player to be dismissed in the history of the match.
There was not a referee until the 1881 match, when Mr H. H. Taylor officiated. Prior to this each game had two umpires, one from each university. The record number of appearances is held by former RFU secretary Rowland Hill along with Welshman Gwynne Walters both with seven games. Other notable International referees who have controlled this fixture are Englishmen G. H. Harnett (6) Cyril Gadney (6) and H.L. Ashmore (5), along with Welshmen Albert Freethy (6) and Clive Norling (5). Up until the start of the professional era, one of the unique aspects of the Varsity game was that the referee was not appointed by the RFU but agreed upon and invited by the two captains. This tradition ended after the 1997–98 season, along with that of the previous year's captains returning to act as touch judges (a continuation of the original custom of each university appointing an umpire), when the RFU Referees' committee decided that touch judges could only be qualified officials and that the RFU should appoint the referee. Now there is also a television match official.
In 2001 the MMC Trophy replaced the Bowring Bowl, established in 1976, as the prize. 2005 was the last year Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC) sponsored the match. Subsequent sponsors have been Lehman Brothers from 2006 to 2007, Nomura Group from 2008 to 2011 and Pol Roger and Glenfarclas distillery since 2012. The clothing manufacturer Jack Wills have also sponsored the match since 2011.
Many of those who have played in the Varsity Match have gone on to win international honours; a number of others played in the Match after earning international honours. These include:
1987 Rugby World Cup winning All Blacks captain David Kirk played in the 1987 and captained the 1988 Varsity Match after ending his international career to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.Brian Smith represented Australia in the 1987 Rugby World Cup and played in the 1988 and captained 1989 Varsity match for Oxford, before continuing his international career with Ireland 1990–1991. Former Wallaby Joe Roff played in the 2006 and 2007 Varsity Matches for Oxford after retiring from professional rugby, captaining the side in 2007. Five former or current internationals played in the 2008 Varsity Match. The most notable were retired All Black hooker Anton Oliver for Oxford and former Wallaby lock Dan Vickerman for Cambridge, with Oxford also fielding current Canada flanker Stan McKeen and Cambridge fielding former All Black centre Mark Ranby and former USA scrum-half Doug Rowe. Vickerman captained Cambridge in the 2009 Match, in which McKeen and Rowe also played.