The Daily Mail, December 9, 1913
THE FASCINATING MR.
TO-DAY’S ’VARSITY MATCH.
By P. G. WODEHOUSE.
England may be on the down-grade as regards sport, but patriots may take consolation from the fact that the finest sporting contest in existence, the ’Varsity Rugby match, is home-made. That makes up for a lot.
It is a moot point whether watching the ’Varsity match should not be included in the next Olympic meeting. There are few greater tests of skill and endurance. No weakling can go through the game with a curate standing on each of his feet and his eyes full of the umbrellas of rural deans, while about twenty youths of nobbly exterior prod him in the spine with their elbows. Of course, one reads of people who have got a seat at Queen’s Club, but has it ever been proved that anyone has ever had a seat at Queen’s Club? I think not. And, even if such a thing is possible, it is not a very sportsmanlike trick. Your genuine Rugby Unionist prefers to jump up and down on one leg.
Play in the ’Varsity match is hard but clean. At the present moment, with a school of performers springing up who favour catch-as-catch-can rules of the type first introduced by the eminent wrestler Mr. Frank Gotch, it is not often that a match combines these two qualities. The other day, in a provincial club game, one side formally accused the other of undue roughness. The accused team responded with a demand for an explanation why, on No Side being called, one of their forwards found that his thumb had been bitten to the bone, causing subsequent blood-poisoning. As Shakespeare would put it, “Do you bite my thumb at me, sir?” In the ’Varsity match exuberance of this kind is unknown. When Bain tackles Greenwood to-day out of touch, the Old Alleynian, though no vegetarian on principle, will refrain from chewing the Oxford captain. If Williamson’s head comes off as the result of a tackle by Cumberlege the latter will be the first to apologise. Indeed, ’Varsity players have reduced to a rare perfection the art of flinging their opponents about like sacks of coal while bearing in mind the while that they are men and brothers.
* * * * *
One by one the good old customs die. To-day, for instance, play will start at 2.15 instead of 2.30. Consider what that means. You will see the whole match. Have you ever done that before? Never. Occasionally, during the last ten minutes of former ’Varsity matches, you have caught a glimpse of the play when somebody has struck a match to light his pipe and thrown a sudden gleam on to the field; but, except for those rare moments, all you have seen has been a sort of fog with a kind of swirl in the middle. Indeed, it is only the high standard of honour which prevails at the Universities which has prevented teams in other years winning in the last five minutes by sending their left wing three-quarter sprinting off down the left touch-line without the ball while their right wing on the other side of the field slunk through the shadows and scored.
It generally happens that the ’Varsity match becomes known each year as “Somebody’s match.” Poulton and K. G. Macleod have won this honour in their time. This year, unless form is completely upset, as it often is in this particular game, it should be Lowe’s match. For years Lowe has been working unobtrusively towards what the Americans call “stellar honours,” and this season he has certainly become the most prominent figure in Rugby football.
Lowe on the football field is a fascinating spectacle. He looks so small and fragile, as he stands aloof from the rough brawl, that one’s heart goes out to him. He has the interesting pallor and the look of introspective sadness of the little new boy who dies of consumption in the middle of a school story. Nobody who had not seen him play would guess that he was the rip-snorting bear-cat he has proved himself on many a stricken field. It is a revelation to the stranger to see him take a pass and get on the move. He shares with the Australian jack-rabbit the ability to get straight off the mark with a fourteen-feet bound, in the course of which he soars a yard or two into the air and goes off at right angles. There is nothing of the orthodox wing three-quarter about Lowe. He zigzags about the field till he has found an opening, then slips through. It is all wrong from the point of view of the go-straight-for-the-corner-flag school, but, like the German in Kipling’s story, he works miracles and they come off.
The passage of time has toned him down to a certain extent, and he is never likely to repeat some of his school football runs. There were three efforts in particular, against Bedford, Haileybury, and St. Paul’s, which were marvels of individual play. In the first case he dodged round behind his own goal-posts and then ran the whole length of the field and scored. In the second he tacked about the field and wound up by dropping a goal. In the last he began with a dribble from the Dulwich line, picked up on the twenty-five line, and went in without being touched.
If the Suffragettes really want to impress themselves on the public they should stop burning country houses and kidnap Lowe just before the kick-off to-day.
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There is a superstition that the favourites never win, or do not often win, in the ’Varsity match, and for this reason it is customary to ignore form as exhibited in the pre-Queen’s Club game. It is difficult to see how this idea is borne out by the facts. Since Cartwright’s year, ten seasons ago, when Oxford sprang a surprise on an unbeaten Cambridge team, how often have the favourites won? Every time, except when K. G. Macleod was captain of Cambridge and the score was 5 points all. Last year everything pointed to a Cambridge victory, and it happened. The year before Oxford were favourites and won by 19 points to nil. In 1910 Oxford were favourites and won by a margin of 5 points. In 1909 Oxford were favourites and ran up a record score. But for some reason the seers are scared when it comes to giving out a dead snip for the ’Varsity match. They hedge. They give their opinion guardedly that Cambridge will win unless Oxford beats them or makes a draw of it. This year, for instance, not even a series of Oxford defeats and a succession of brilliant Cambridge wins have given them the courage to plump boldly for the Light Blues.
I stoutly maintain that, when the shades of evening have fallen and the authorities of Queen’s Club are putting out the cat and locking up for the night, Cambridge will have won by quite some margin. I can see in my mind’s eye Greenwood hooking the ball for Cumberlege and Lewis to feed De Villiers and Lowe, and then a sort of blue streak, which is Lowe sprinting over the line.
It is fortunate that I can see these things in my mind’s eye, for I doubt if I shall see them in any other way. I have not got a seat, and all the six-foot curates in the United Kingdom are certain to have collared the front row of the standing-room by the time I arrive. One of these days, when I have time, I shall invent the patent ’Varsity Match Expanding Camp-stool.
Queen’s Club: The University Sports meeting between Cambridge and Oxford was held at the Queen’s Club, a private sporting club in West Kensington, London, from 1888 to 1928.
bite my thumb: pronoun altered from Romeo and Juliet, I, i.
Greenwood: John Eric “Jenny” Greenwood (1891–1975) took up rugby at Dulwich along with C. N. Lowe, played for Cambridge (his University career was interrupted by the First World War), and captained for England in 1920.
Lowe: Cyril Nelson “Kit” Lowe (1891–1983) represented Dulwich College in boxing, cricket, and rugby, and edited The Alleynian, the school magazine, as Wodehouse had done a decade before. He was small for a rugby player at 5′6″ and 8½ stone. He was a triple blue at Cambridge in 1911–1913 and played for England both before and after the First World War.
These two were among five Dulwich old boys playing in the 1913 ’Varsity match. Wodehouse had mentioned them in a football report for The Alleynian, and according to Norman Murphy “had watched them all develop their Rugger there and had certainly played against them as well.” Other members of the 1909 Dulwich first XV included George Doherty (see notes to “A Blessing in Disguise”), who joined Lowe and Greenwood in the 1913 Cambridge team, while Eric Loudoun-Shand and Grahame Donald played for Oxford.
Norman Murphy cites a newspaper clipping from the 1980s about Lowe attending a ’Varsity match in his 90th year; he was very proud to be the only Rugby player to be the subject of a Wodehouse poem, “The Great Day.”
soars a yard or two into the air and goes off at right angles: Reminiscent of a similar outlandish feat in chapter 13 of For Love or Honour.
Kipling’s story: Not the H. G. Wells story one first thinks of, but “In the Rukh” from Many Inventions. Muller, the German, says “Yes, I work miracles, and, by Gott, dey come off too.”
—Transcription and notes by Neil Midkiff