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Record crowd caps a vintage Varsity

14 October 2015
Record crowd caps a vintage Varsity
The high-octane atmosphere that permeated throughout the flagship event of the 2015 Annual Leeds Varsity Day – the men’s rugby union game at Headingley Carnegie – told you everything about what the occasion meant to the two competing universities. If anyone needed further convincing, then the announcement of the crowd attendance for Leeds Beckett’s 27-13 victory over the University of Leeds, summed it up succinctly.

Not only was the 14,272 attendance a record over the eleven years of the Varsity event; it was also actually a full three thousand higher than the crowd attending the Rugby Union World Cup game taking place at exactly the same time in Exeter, between Namibia and Georgia. While the two universities may be restricted by their local boundaries and nobody’s suggesting they draw up plans to promote Leeds Varsity on a global stage, they could be forgiven for wondering where they can take the event now, and how 2016’s Varsity can beat this one.

In this respect, Leeds Beckett University’s overall victory of 30.5 to 27.5 can be seen two ways. With it being Beckett’s 10th victory out of the eleven annual events – the other was a draw in 2012 – some observers may feel the competition is a foregone conclusion before it starts, but anybody who saw the fervour created at the rugby union game at Headingley, or who watched any of the events in which the University of Leeds ran Beckett so close over the day’s proceedings, will walk away with one eye already on the 2016 Varsity and a firm belief that there is plenty of life in the annual grudge match yet.

The Varsity tagline of “Friendship, Passion, Pride” was ubiquitous throughout the day, but looked particularly resplendent on the t-shirted hordes at the rugby union finale, and it perfectly summed up the underlying ethos behind the event. In addition, though, the ‘Rainbow Laces’ initiative offered great exposure to an honourable cause and made the participants think about the true nature of Varsity, before the rough and tumble of the sporting programme took over. The universities’ joint plan to support the Stonewall charity’s endeavour to promote ‘acceptance without exception’, saw the competing players in the rugby union game sporting rainbow laces in their boots, and the equality and diversity divisions of each university have been selling the rainbow laces before and after the Varsity day, in a bid to raise awareness of the fight against homophobia. It was a welcome reminder of the “Friendship, Passion, Pride” mantra that underpins the Varsity, and at the end of a breathless day of finely-balanced sport, it was the over-riding, good-natured spirit that shone through despite the highly-competitive cut and thrust of the 67 separate events.

Desperate to record a first ever overall victory in the Varsity, the morning didn’t get off to a great start for the University of Leeds, with the thunderous overnight weather which carried over to the early morning becoming a factor. Beckett lead by 5-2 at lunch time, despite a notable victory for the University of Leeds in the men’s swimming, by 105 points to 15. Elsewhere, the golf was abandoned owing to the weather and the badminton was drawn. Leeds Beckett romped home in the American Football by 55-0 and won three out of the four women’s netball games. Beckett also dominated the women’s football, winning the three games 5-0, 11-1 and 16-0 – indeed they won all the men’s football games too - and many thought it was going to be another landslide victory for Beckett.

But the University of Leeds’s resolve came to the fore in an afternoon of high tension. Standout victories for the Uni came via a two-pronged triumph in the men’s and women’s biathlon, volleyball and water polo, and hard-fought wins in both the men’s and women’s hockey. The weather slowly improved over the day, and by the time the crowds started arriving for the showpiece event at Headingley Carnegie, Leeds 6 was bathed in a soothing autumn sunlight. As the evening sun disappeared the excited chatter of the crowd was discussing the neck and neck nature of the Varsity scores, and with the rugby union finale preparing to kick off, the overall score stood at 23-21 to Leeds Beckett, with some fixtures due to be completed during the rugby game. It was quite possible that the traditional match-up between the rival BUCS Premier League teams from the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University could actually settle the most nail-biting of Varsities one way or the other.

It was not as though the game needed an additional ingredient to further boost the atmosphere. Crowds were arriving more than an hour before the 7.00pm kick-off, and for quite some time afterwards, and it soon became apparent that what we would shortly be witnessing was going to be a fitting end to the Varsity competition. A fervent crowd was building across all four sides of the ground and a wholehearted intensity was simmering as kick-off approached. The tension was somewhat punctured by the Grease medley and YMCA megamix played over the tannoy pre-kick-off, and for a moment you were part of the biggest student disco in the world, but the pressing significance of the situation was soon restored.

If you were in any doubt that a serious rivalry existed between the City’s two major universities this was quickly dispelled as the game kicked-off. In a raucous cacophony of noise the players took to the pitch like Roman gladiators and the opening minutes were a frenzy of nervous handling and full-blooded tackling, all to the backdrop of manic excitement in the stands.

Prior to the game, Leeds Beckett captain Josh Longson had spoken about his team’s experience of the big occasion, having competed at Twickenham in the last two years for the Premier League National Championship. It is fair to say not even that showpiece occasion could compare with the white hot atmosphere at Headingley, and the first half perhaps suffered in quality as a result. Open, free-flowing rugby was at a premium but Beckett started like the Champions they are. The University of Leeds hadn’t even got out of their own half before they found themselves 7-0 down. A scuffle under their own posts lead to a penalty try converted by David McIllwaine, and the referee attempted to diffuse the prickly tension by asking each captain to group his respective teammates in a huddle and plead for calm heads.

It worked, and the game opened up with the University enjoying ten minutes of pressure towards the Beckett try line, but not before each side lost a player to injury – with the University’s number 17 Tommy Pritchard entering the field to particularly rapturous cheers – and the University also lost Ollie Holt; sentenced to ten minutes in the sin bin for a high tackle. The half ended with Beckett camped exclusively in their opponents’ half and with captain Longson at the centre of everything. Shortly before the half-time whistle brought an end to 40 minutes that had passed in a whirlwind, McIllwaine kicked a penalty from nearly the halfway line, to give Beckett a 10-0 half-time lead.

As the crowd drew breath and topped up their refreshments, they were updated on the all-important Varsity scores. The announcer built the tension by reading out every individual result, drawing elated cheers from the Beckett fans in the South Stand and the Uni fans in the other three stands accordingly. The end result was that Beckett led 29.5 to 27.5 with just the rugby union game to be completed, and hence Beckett had snatched it again.

To pour salt into the wounds, Beckett’s Ollie Hutson flew down the left wing to score a try in the opening moments of the second half; and the South Stand was a sea of dancing fans. But from their conquered position on the canvas, the University of Leeds somehow found some strength. Beckett’s Max Green was sin-binned and on 46 minutes Jamie Guy kicked a penalty to finally get the University of Leeds on the scoreboard at 17-3. The Uni fans instantly forgot their troubles and went all-out to salvage something from the evening. Both teams landed another penalty kick each to bring the score to 20-6, before the Uni’s standout moment of the night. Ethan Allen bundled the ball over the try line in front of the packed Carnegie Terrace and three sides of the ground erupted. At 20-13 with twenty minutes to play, the University of Leeds were just one converted try behind. The game opened up as a result, but Beckett showed their Champion class and held their nerve to control the game while the bubbling crowd smelt blood. Beckett missed a penalty kick but the scene became somewhat chaotic as four separate pitch invaders temporarily halted proceedings. With the crowd lapping it up, Beckett settled the game with a penalty try, which man-of-the-match David McIllwaine converted to leave the score at 27-13.

Without doubt, the experience will have left an impression on both teams and any of the crowd who had not witnessed the Varsity game before. This was, in essence, the final pre-season game for the two sides before they started their respective BUCS Premier League campaigns in October, and their task now is to take the positives from the experience and attempt to instil the same level of commitment to routine league games. Quite how this is achieved without replicating the unique conditions of the Varsity game is a challenge indeed, but Beckett’s league success, in particular, suggests it can be done.

In the aftermath of another Varsity contest that took stripped-down and honest sporting combat right to the wire, the wealth of talent, organisation and camaraderie within and between the City’s two major universities provides a bucket load of justification for repeating the Varsity competition again and again and again. While the question might be ‘How do you improve it?’ the very honest answer is ‘Why do you need to?’ Varsity proudly showcases the rich talent across an array of disciplines within Leeds’s vast student population; it brings a natural, healthy and primary sense of competition which is as old as time itself, and it brings out a spirit and determination that drives every individual on. How and why would you want to change that?

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.