Ollie Phillips column: Winning the Varsity Match with Cambridge was the perfect way to bow out of rugby

Ollie Phillips
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Oxford University v Cambridge University - Mens Varsity Match
Cambridge triumphed in the 136th fixture between the two sides (Source: Getty)

Playing in the Varsity match for Cambridge today was a phenomenal experience and to come away with the win was incredible.

I thought we were deserved winners at 20-10. We had two disallowed tries and another held up on the line, we defended our hearts out and were potent in attack.

It was one of the most special moments of my career and for these old legs was the perfect way to bow out.

I’m big enough, old enough and ugly enough now to know it’s time to bring my playing days to an end and, having stepped back from full-time rugby two years ago, this was the perfect way to stop altogether.

From a personal perspective, it was a really fitting way to do it.

I’ve been playing rugby for 17 years and the last time I got to pick up a ball and run around was at at Twickenham, the home of rugby. That’s pretty special.

The Varsity Match is the oldest and most historic fixture in rugby. It has 136 years of history behind it, the majesty of the two institutions involved. The whole fixture reminded me of everything that’s brilliant about amateur rugby and why I played it in the first place.

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In the world of professionalism you can get lost in the pursuit of winning and money. We’d go on a tournament with England and often even if we’d won we would say ‘Right, straight back on it because we’ve got another tournament round the corner’. It could be a bit of a rat race.

Cause for celebration: Cambridge beat Oxford 20-10 to retain the trophy (Source: BBC)

University sport is arguably the lifeblood of our game alongside club rugby. It’s those two arenas where all the talent that goes on to represent clubs and countries is nurtured.

But it’s definitely taken a bit of a battering over the years. It’s struggled because of the fact that kids are increasingly going into professional clubs straight from school. It’s perhaps not hit the heights it did 10, 15 years ago. The money of elite level sport takes over.

But when you break free from the shackles of professionalism, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an environment quite like this before.

The rivalry is both fierce and pure. I’ve loved all the build-up, the hype, the rituals.

The most amazing tradition was when around 40 to 50 old boys came back and greeted us on the steps leading all the way up Castle Hill holding lanterns. They don’t talk to you or say anything. You all stand there together at the top of the hill and look out across this vibrant, growing city full of history and knowledge.

Then one of the old boys reads a story to you about what it means to play for Cambridge and how you’re part of the family. Every hair on the back of my neck stood up at the excitement of what I was a part of.

The Varsity match embodies everything that is great about the amateur game of rugby and was the perfect ending for me. I’m just delighted that I got the chance to play on Twickenham turf one last time.

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