A History of the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Rivalry


A Background on the Oxford & Cambridge Battle

The rivalry between England’s two most prestigious Universities has been raging for more than one hundred years and does not show any signs of stopping any time soon.The two Universities go head to head with each other in everything from academic rankings to sporting events, the most well-known being the varsity rugby match.

Rugby Varsity Match 

The annual varsity rugby match between Oxford and Cambridge has been played every year since 1872. The varsity match is one of the world’s longest running sporting events and classed as the pinnacle of student and amateur rugby. The game to determine the holders of the varsity title was traditionally played on the second Tuesday of December at 2pm until 2007 when it was moved to a Thursday.

The day change however didn’t change the popularity of the match and it still continues to attract large audiences. Although Oxford and Cambridge are not professional rugby teams, they remain at the forefront of the development of the sport and continue to be a benchmark for the game due to their promotion of the traditional values and ideals.

After the most recent match in 2014, Cambridge University currently has the lead with 61 wins against Oxfords 58. The teams have tied a total of 14 times.

Oxbridge also play in varsity matches in a number of other sports including water polo, with the first ever match in recorded history being played between Oxford and Cambridge in 1891.


The first ever varsity rugby match was played just one year after the first rugby international match between Scotland and England in 1871 and the teams played a 20-a-side version of the game (teams were not restricted to the familiar 15-a-side guideline until 1875). Oxford won the first ever varsity game whilst wearing their traditional navy blue jerseys while Cambridge played in pink until 1876 when they switched to their regular blue and white that they are known for today.


The match was played in various locations throughout London after the first two years before moving to Twickenham, the Rugby Football Union’s renowned homeground, in 1921. Although the varsity match was not played during wartime, several other games were played during World War Two, these led to nine wins for Cambridge, two for Oxford and one tie between them.

The centenary of the game was played in 1981 with up to four inches of snow covering the pitch thanks to an overnight fall of snow that could not be cleared in time for the start of the match. This is not the first time the game was affected by adverse weather. In both 1878 and 1879 the game had to be postponed due to thick fog and during the 1919 game the players were reportedly invisible thanks to the fog.

In 1987 David Kirk, captain of the World Cup winning All Blacks, put an end to his International career to take up a scholarship at Oxford University and played in the 1987 varsity match before captaining the varsity team in 1988.

Boat Race

Another popular contest between the two universities is the annual boat race on the River Thames. Starting in 1829, the boating teams from each university compete across a four mile stretch of the Thames with the first race ever being won by Oxford.

However, Cambridge has gone on to win eighty one races to date against Oxford’s seventy six. Additionally, both universities compete in varsity matches in Cricket, Ice Hockey and Polo which also tend to attract attention from across the nation. The games are combined each year to come under the umbrella known as The Varsity Games and the scores of each game are aggregated to allow one of the universities to take The Varsity Games title.

Although the rivalry between the two universities may be seen as extensive, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the two institutions have a rather amicable relationship and most of the Oxford colleges have sister colleges in Cambridge. 

The new year brings with it new opportunities for the rivalling universities to compete in their traditional varsity matches and we will have to wait and see what the outcome will be. After all, a little healthy competition never hurt anybody.

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