When David Ross started his job as the Director of Rugby at the University of St Andrews Rugby Club almost five and a half years ago, it was a much different place than it is now. The Men’s 1st XV were in the BUCS Scottish 2A Division, and although there was no shortage of enthusiasm for the game, the team was not quite living up to its full potential. Ross’s arrival brought about several changes to the club; improvements were made in areas such as strength and conditioning, video analysis and tactics. What cannot be underestimated, however, was the transformation to a more professional mentality within the club, and in the succeeding three months, the 1st XV won promotion to the Scottish BUCS 1A Division, as well as their weekend league by the end of the season. Fast forward to today, and the Men’s 1st XV find themselves as the best non-professional team in Scotland, having won the Scottish Championship two years running and competing down south in the BUCS Northern Premier League. It has also culminated in the Scottish Varsity Match being brought home after recent years of being played in London.
Given the relatively few opportnities there are in this country for university sports teams to play in front of a big audience, added to the large population of St Andrews students from North America (where “college football” can see crowds of up to and over 90,000 people), added to the success of the Jonny Wookey Memorial ice hockey game, maybe it should be no surprise that this weekend’s fixtures have sold nearly triple the expected amount of tickets, comfortably outselling the previous St Andrews-Edinburgh Varsity matches in London. So who and what was involved in bringing the Varsity back to Scotland?
Although going to London, according to Ross, was a great experience for all involved – for the students, the chance to fly down and stay in a team hotel; for alumni, the chance to see their respective alma maters in action – the opportunity to play in Scotland’s national stadium would, for obvious reasons, provide a better showcase for Scottish university rugby, and the chance to open the game to the wider public. It is the result of a partnership between Scottish Rugby, Edinburgh University and St Andrews University and has been in the pipeline since January of this year. The ambition for Ross, and presumably, all else involved, is to see the match rival the famous Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match played annually at Twickenham. The St Andrews-Edinburgh equivalent being billed as the oldest Varsity match in the world will surely do this no harm.
When asked about preparations for Saturday, Ross is naturally optimistic. The rugby club is the only sports club in St Andrews to have two weeks of pre-season training, with turnout at an all-time high this year. Friendlies against Glasgow and Durham yielded a win and loss respectively, the former giving a morale boost and the latter giving a chance for the team to analyse areas to work on. That the rugby club already has an established internal infrastructure – including a part-time coach who works on video analysis, a full-time strength and conditioning coach and team doctors and physios.The presence of what Ross calls “the best rugby programme outside the professional game in Scotland” ensures that planning for Saturday’s game goes a lot further than a couple of pre-season friendlies.
Whatever the result on Saturday evening, it should be borne in mind that the chance to watch, for free and at Murrayfield, a fixture going back centuries is not one that comes along often. Judging by the demand for tickets, whereby nearly 15,000 have been sold at the time of writing, this chance has not been lost on St Andrews and Edinburgh students alike. Considering that the Varsity has outsold St Andrews events such as the May Ball and Fashion Show, the use of Ross’s words “the students voted with their feet” would seem like a gross understatement.
And should students continue to vote with their feet, is there any reason why the Scottish Varsity should not match the Oxbridge Varsity?