Aussie Rules Varsity

The Tab talks to the Cambridge and Oxford Captains ahead of the Varsity match

It seems obvious to say that Aussie rules does not have a very high profile in this country. Like me, you may have stumbled across it on Sky Sports at obscure hours of the morning and did not really come away with an understanding of the rules, just knowing that the people who play it are fucking hard. For those of you who have never seen the game, imagine a cross between the physicality of rugby league and the fluidity of basketball. Aussie rules is everything you would expect of a sport invented in a country which we all know is crazy about its sports. It is brutal, fast-paced and requires great athleticism and awareness. If you want further evidence of how vicious it can be just look it up on youtube and sample the first few videos that come up.

Of course, the Cambridge players who will be travelling to Oxford on Saturday to play in the 89th Aussie Rules Varsity match may not all compare with the players you see online. The small profile of the sport in England means that both Oxford and Cambridge can struggle to recruit players (A squad needs 22 and there are18 on the pitch at any one time). Nevertheless, the Cambridge team is looking strong this year. It is made up principally of Australian ex-pats and a medley of Canadians, Kiwis and the odd undergrad who has stumbled into it. The squad really is a mixed bunch: some of the players have a wealth of experience playing back home in Oz, for others, Saturday will be their first experience of playing a competitive Aussie Rules match.

The day promises to be a proper Australian day out. The team will be accompanied to Oxford by the Australian and New Zealand Society Netball team who will play their annual varsity match alongside the footballers. This replicates the club environment back in Oz where often these two sports are played alongside each other. Moreover, in true Australian style, a barbie will be put on after the match and doubtlessly there will be a few tins of Fosters somewhere about as well. The Oxford captain, Sam Stranks, assured me that the British weather would not put an end to the BBQ and a full marquee would be in place to cover all eventualities.

But, don’t let this friendly image mislead you about the fierceness of the competition. When I questioned the seriousness of the match, suggesting it was more of an excuse for a good old Australian party, both Sam Stranks and the Cambridge Captain, Tim Rogan, hurried to assure me that no love would be lost on the pitch. Both teams have been training hard since the start of the year and building up towards this match. The two captains had built up a good rapport in their communications to organise the match, but expect all civilities to be set aside on Saturday as the players run out on to the odd-shaped pitch.

Historically Oxford have been the stronger of the two teams; last year they won by a commanding 33 points. But Tim Rogan appeared confident this year. He pointed to the last time Cambridge won the fixture, three years ago, which was also played out in soggy conditions. ‘The wet ground should definitely serve as a leveller for the two teams’ Rogan said, ‘I think that should give us a good chance this year.’ We shall see if this confidence is warranted tomorrow.

Tim Rogan puts the reason that Aussie Rules struggles more in Cambridge than in Oxford down to the higher number of Australians in the other place. This is due in part to the Rhodes Scholarship programme and similar exchanges which mean that the Australian link is stronger with Oxford. Currently, the sport does not have Blues status in Cambridge either, which would undoubtedly serve to raise its profile. Rogan and his team mates are currently looking to secure this by expanding the sport. At present, the varsity match is the only fixture of the year. Blues status would require them to play regular fixtures. But both the Oxford and Cambridge teams struggle to find any one to play against them. Each had planned matches against local teams fall through in the past few weeks.

There is hope however. Rogan is hopeful that the Australian Football League’s (AFL) planned expansion in Europe will help the game get more of a following across the continent. He hinted at plans for a tour party next summer to Scandinavia, so if any of you are thinking about taking up Aussie rules now might be the time.

The Varsity match takes place Saturday 14th November in Oxford.

If you are a minority sport in Cambridge and want to raise your profile get in touch with the Tab at [email protected]