Varsity: A journey into the lukewarm world of ‘uni spirit’

What happens on the pitch is irrelevant



At the start of every year, we play Leeds Met at around 25 different sports. If you didn’t realize it was so many, don’t worry; the only way the average person would find out about the other events is when the cringey hashtags leak through into their twitter feed from accounts they never remember following. But, there’s one event which couldn’t give less of a fuck about how many favs or RTs it has.

It’s the most visible event in the continuing narrative of Us vs Them tribalism. It evokes such strong emotions, normally intelligent young adults feel the most natural way to express themselves is to take off their clothes and run out onto the field, or to piss in a plastic pint cup and throw it at people dressed in purple.

It’s the Varsity Rugby Union final, obvs.

Saying “it’s just a sports match” would be like saying World War II was “just a scuffle”, and like all good British activities, you need a few drinks to get the most out of it. This was was confirmed when my ticket came with a flyer telling me to head to Terrace for a pre-party BBQ and get in the ‘Varsity mood’ – which is perhaps the greatest euphemism for getting drunk I’ve heard.

So armed with a camera and a proudly functioning liver, I went with my housemate to try and capture the real Varsity spirit. I had hopes of finding out why for one day of the year we care about rugby, beyond trying to avoid those cunts on a Wednesday evening.

At the Terrace, I was expecting a vibrant hub of student pride. Big Friendly Lads getting steadily drunk on booze and banter, and girls for which the thought of talking to them would remind me of my place in the university social hierarchy — but who if I drank enough I might have a chance with. I expected all of these together, harmoniously fostering a vibe which’d nullify the collective trauma of being tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

But all I got was a bunch of party part-timers who didn’t care about the success of our rugby team at all – they just wanted a drink after lectures and were confused as to why there was even a BBQ there in the first place. It was like spending thirty minutes downloading a movie for your house to watch, only to find out it was one of those versions filmed by a bloke holding a camcorder between his legs at the back of a cinema while some kid in front throws popcorn at the screen.

Realizing the totes amaze “Varsity spirit” Twitter told me existed had to be elsewhere, I ate my much-hyped-but-ultimately-disappointing burger and set off to The Edge, where the majority of the day’s events were being held.

On the way we met this young man who was making his own case for Varsity pride, and while I didn’t quite understand his modus operandi or choice of shirt, I felt like we were searching for the same thing, just in our own different ways. The part of his ideology which resonated most was the drink, and he joined us on our search for Varsity enlightenment. He seemed pretty close as it was.

One of the biggest assets the Varsity final has going for it is the near-certain probability of streakers, and so extrapolating on this, you’d figure the swimming pool at the Edge would be the best place for an appetizer of what was to come. Surely this is where the true Varsity die-hards would be lurking, warming up for the evening’s antics.

But even though we were rolling deeper, there was still no sign of the largely hyped atmosphere. We initially thought these guys were superfans – one big house all dressed up the same to come and support their university on, but it turns out they were the ones actually competing.

Being thoroughly disappointed by our university’s offering of Varsity spirit, we made the brave decision to head over to Beckett’s SU. I’d imagine how for most Uni of students, it’s a pretty alien place, with our preconceptions of Beckett being them having more dumbbells than they do lecturers, and how most of its students’ Twitter feeds are made up of Paddy Power retweets and #bbcsport opinions.

The décor is very Wetherspoons-meets-Waterstones, which is the most fitting representation of Beckett there can be. The walls were decorated to look like bookshelves – as if this was some sort of brainwashing technique by the SU to try and desensitize its students to the intimidating nature of books which don’t have pop-out elements to them.

They had TVs which played a mixture of its own TV programmes, which mostly focused on a mix of the latest video games and (obviously) Varsity hype, but then there was also this bizarre Whatsapp conversation which seemed to be talking about Las Night’s Exploits. Frankly, it’s a bizarre contrast to our vanilla SU and LSTV offerings, but I can’t help but feel they’d pushed the boat out slightly too far in the wrong direction. Emoji experts, please get in touch and tell me this conversation’s not about what I think it is.

Still, in spite of all my pre-conceptions about how their inferiority complex means Varsity’s the only thing they care about, their gaff was even less vibesy than ours. We sank a quick pint, lost £1 on the pub quiz machine, and headed to the stadium.

On the way, the contrast in clothing between Beckett and Uni made it easy to pick out who was on whose side. I’ve always been interested in the difference between the two, and with such a large parade of subjects, the disparity is obvious.

Uni has the whole Stüssy, Palace x Adidas and Airmax hodgepodge of streetwear assembled from Hypebeast and Wavy Garms, creating a very ‘Daddy paid for my wardrobe’ type of look, whereas Beckett are on the less-forced, almost less-self aware mix of Zara and Topman: an understated, and perhaps more understandable wardrobe which gives off the ‘I actually fit into normal society’ vibe. It’s a very online vs. highstreet dichotomy, which I think tells you a lot about the demographics of each uni — for better or worse.

Though I’m not sure where these two fit into my theory. Maybe there’s an Endclothing pirate release around the corner?

And obviously, the chino wankers. I always wonder if the hue of their trousers indicates where they stand in the pecking order? Something like the faster you can drink a pint, the darker you’re allowed? How light is too light? Are carrot fits out? Is someone looking into this?

There was also a security presence at the stadium, but it mainly felt like G4S were using it as an excuse to practice drills for when a real sporting event occurs. O,r the people who work for them just enjoy the feeling of personal power which telling people what to do gives them.

We worked our way through the zoo of people and into the stadium itself, where there was a scramble of people all trying to find the best place to stock up on drinks before the game started. Once again, this isn’t a spectacle to be enjoyed sober.

After waiting ten minutes to get two pints in a single cup, we got to our stand and the players got to the pitch.

If you were reading this in The Gryphon, the atmosphere would probably be described as ‘palpable’ or ‘electric’ or some other bullshit word. Maybe it’s my lack of appreciation, but I can’t help but feel no-one really gave a shit about the actual game. It was more of a public predrinks for whatever afterparty was to follow. Sure, these men had trained relentlessly for however many months proceeding it, but they’d be getting more attention on nights out than they would here.

It was all a very scripted spectacle. For 80 minutes, you defer your emotional capacities to 15 beefed-up men on the pitch who just so happen to be wearing your university’s colours. If they swapped shirts at half time, you get the feeling nobody would really notice. The ball touches down, you hear the ref blow his whistle: you look at the opposing stand to see how you should react. You cheer, because they’re not.

And when I was watching it, I realized the whole day – the whole reason why we were here – wasn’t about 30 men chasing a ball around a field. It’s practically the only social occasion of the calendar where the university assembles for something it cares about, in spite of how superficial or short-lasting it is. Think #KONY2012, but something which actually gets people to leave their computer screens.

For many, the idea of forging your own path in the university bubble is a constant feedback loop by which to judge your decisions. It’s the first step in your adult life, and you’re conscious to make the right ones. A place like university – especially Leeds – is particularly resistant to blending into the crowd. But Varsity gives you the excuse you’ve been looking for, the easy tribalism, and at the end of it, you find it’s really not so bad.

Although these lads said a big “fuck it” to blending in, and I think we’re all the better for it.

The crowd kept cheering at certain points throughout the game, and eventually the ref blew his whistle for the last time and we didn’t cheer, because we didn’t win. It would’ve been nice if we had won, but we didn’t.

To say we were disappointed would be a bit of an overstatement. Disappointment is a feeling saved for your parents when they have to pick you up from the police station after showing a police officer your genitals. No, it was more of a “that’s a bit annoying” feeling, like finding out the can of Red Stripe you ordered actually cost £4, and you’re going to have to pay it because they’ve already cracked it open.

But at the same time, I don’t think it can be said people didn’t enjoy themselves, which maybe goes to show how for most of us, it’s not so much the event which provides us the entertainment, but each other.

Although it still doesn’t stop the Union booking Dick and Dom for fucking Fruity.


Pictures: Oscar Frandsen