Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Tyrone Howe: Professional era has made Barbarians even more popular

HOw refreshing it was to hear the reactions of world rugby legends Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana after the victory for the Barbarians over New Zealand last weekend.

Their rugby CVs go on and on — World Cup winners, TriNations champions, and Test victors over the Lions — yet maybe their biggest smiles of 2009 came as a result of a match that counted for little else other than the joy of playing hard, competitive rugby with nothing at stake other than the will and skill to win.

As professional rugby evolves, with conflicting consequences, rugby entities like the Barbarians, I believe, increase in value not only to supporters but, more interestingly, also to the players.

You rarely get to meet opposing players apart from a customary shake of the hand at the end of the game.

On Saturday, however, you had Jamie Roberts, who had battled the Springboks in the summer, enjoying the experience of playing alongside a number of former foes but this time for the same cause.

The reason is history and tradition. Pulling on that Barbarians jersey is like going back in time — there is an acute feeling of those who have worn the shirt before, and you do not want to do that shirt a disservice. That is the driving motivation.

The same is true for the Varsity Match which will take place tomorrow between perennial rivals, Oxford and Cambridge University. This will be the 128th meeting between the two sides and the contest will be as keenly fought as ever.

Normally, players compete in a league or cup competition, so it is something wholly unique to prepare all year for one match, one period of 80 minutes. It doesn’t matter what has gone on before as often form goes out the window. This is a game that seems to suit the underdog, as the favourite’s tag often strangles and suffocates that particular team.

In terms of crowd figures, which have decreased over the last decade, one could argue, from a purely commercial point of view, that the Varsity Match has somewhat lost its flavour. Ask those who have taken part in the match and they will tell you a different story. This rugby occasion has an intangible value, a magic which has attracted players like Joe Roff, Anton Oliver and this year Dan Vickermann, Cambridge captain, who won 55 caps in the second row for Australia.

As traditions dictate, old habits are hard to shake, so come on Oxford — “shoe those Tabs!”

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