Varsity: The Origin Story
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
These days everyone loves an Origin Story…this one involves Varsity Days, and my role.
Well, I spent the spring, summer and autumn of 1996 traversing the country, encouraging postcode sharing old universities and old polytechnics to take a match they normally played on a desolate playing field in front of no one, and stage it instead at their local senior rugby club at night and charge their fellow students £5 raising funds for charity and also student sport. (60/40 split).
I was working as a volunteer for Oxfam tasked with engaging students into their work, and the idea came when watching that more established Varsity Match on the BBC and thinking why can’t others have their own?
It took a lot of persuasion, but with Oxfam underwriting each event the students were implored to whip up on campus enthusiasm and leave the rest to me, some were more receptive than others. The fact always remains, without the unbelievable work from students and student sports officers, these Varsity matches would not have taken root and then flourished.
Negotiations were tough at times. A portent of things to come. The Welsh Varsity match was originally meant to be between Cardiff and (now) Cardiff Met, but Met said they were too busy. Nottingham Trent didn’t think it would work, and the first Nottingham Varsity match saw Nottingham vs Loughborough. In the end eight matches were delivered.
The first of these matches was staged at The Memorial Ground Bristol, on the 26th November 1996, as I was based in the city it was always going to be that way, and much to everyone’s amazement, including future RFU President Bob Reeves, 2,622 people paid £5 a head to watch a match that normally they could see for free. Jim Brownrigg played for UWE and was signed by Bristol Rugby, Jim Jenner by Newcastle Falcons the next week. Bristol University won that one, and apart from a glorious period of 1999-2004, when UWE dominated (I am an ex UWE student), they never subsequently lost.
This Varsity revolution took in further stops at Birmingham, 247 to watch Warwick, Plymouth, where Marjons generated 1,019 at Plymouth Albion RFC. March 1997 saw Manchester vs Man Met at Sale and a game won in extra time, after we all agreed at the final whistle that we needed extra time. Loughborough beat Nottingham in front of 249; Swansea won the first Welsh Varsity Match at the Arms Park the crowd was just over a 1,000 as we included the stewards who spent most of their time watching the match.
It was only two days later in Newcastle that we realised that this concept had already been done, as Northumbria and Newcastle had two years on us, but no-one else had thought for themselves it was a good idea or to be honest eben mentioned it as we progressed up the country. The season ended with Bath hosting Exeter, and the first involvement of Women’s Rugby which thankfully quickly got fully adopted elsewhere in the next couple of years.
Then the student politics kicked in…Plymouth and Manchester decided to stage matches without Oxfam and up until I jacked it all in by 2003, this was a constant struggle. Most however, remained loyal and 1997-8 saw a whole host of new matches.
North of the border, Edinburgh, Glasgow were joined by Dundee and St Andrews in hosting their own versions, the parties were legendary, and I am sure Chris Cusiter played in the first Edinburgh match but it was a big party so that might have been a figment. Exeter started to host their own Varsity, cherry picking opposition they could beat from their regular league fixtures, a very successful policy over the years. St Marys and Brunel staged their first varsity match at Sunbury, and Simon Amor kicked the match winning drop goal in the last minute.
The attendances grew, the pre and post-match parties became bigger and I like to think that one more innovation from myself, has helped sustain the Varsity phenom.
I had come to realise in the first year that there was a direct correlation between attendances and how popular the rugby club was, so we had to find a way to make every sport count, whilst still having a showpiece event to gather round.
To that end with the help of convenient fixture scheduling in Wales, the Varsity Day was created, with every result counting and every performance highlighted. It meant that 600+ Cardiff students had to attend; they did, enjoyed and created an awesome atmosphere and competition that now sees 15,000+ congregate annually. Pretty obviously the idea spread, I created a lot, dozens more evolved.
Thanks to those brave enough to take the idea on in 1996, over 1600 rugby playing students annually enjoy for what many is the highlight of their playing careers. I am certain that over time it would have occurred, but Oxfam were innovative to kick start the project and showed what could be done. BUCS Super Rugby certainly has its origins in this work.
So, is this to be my sporting legacy? I think I played a significant part at the start, but I always knew that its’ sustainability would be driven by the competitive nature of student life that each year the captains and sabbaticals would strive to outdo their predecessors. Whatever my impact, it still enables me to talk to students from Universities across the country and get their respect, which at my age is pretty unique.
As for me, I watched every Bristol one, and a couple of years ago, I went to the first ever Welsh one at the Millennium Stadium. I currently work on a charity project, (Legacy 300) with a host of Olympic Athletes through the delivery of pro-am sporting tournaments and experience days which have at time of writing raised £510K for good causes.
To mark this 25thyear anniversary of Varsity being kickstarted, the GB Olympians, many of whom are former student sportsmen and women, are inviting ALL student sports clubs in the UK to get involved with the GB Olympians to generate funds for student sport through the Beat The Medallist Challenge Series in 2022.
Using social media (that would have been very helpful in the early days), club members are invited to purchase places or get gifted for Christmas, places on experience days with GB Olympians, generating club funds by taking on GB Medallists in sporting challenges.
Very simply in each event:
· The GB Olympian sets a time.
· The participant sets a time.
· All fundraising done through donation pages etc gives you the time bonuses and hopefully
David Cotton firstname.lastname@example.org