"I knew what a Blue was, but I hadn’t considered what it meant, at least not to me."CURUFC

On my first day of preseason with CURUFC, I was asked in interview what it would mean to win a Blue. The Cambridge captain had arranged a promotional shoot four months ahead of the big match, and as the team’s newest recruit I was put in front of the camera.

I was stumped. I knew what a Blue was, but I hadn’t considered what it meant, at least not to me. Before the silence got too awkward, I managed to fudge an answer about pride in the jersey, the rivalry history, and the chance to play at Twickenham.

While I wasn’t yet versed in Cambridge terminology, I could at least say with heartfelt conviction that playing on the Twickenham pitch was an opportunity to be grabbed with two hands. As I know well, it is a privilege granted to the Varsity Match that is looked upon by other university rugby clubs with rather green eyes.

I completed my undergraduate degree at Durham, where I dedicated three years and countless hours to DUWRFC before, in my final year, we made it to the BUCS Final at Twickenham. It was the first time Durham women had reached the final, and although we lost (narrowly) to Exeter, it was an experience made all the more meaningful by the effort it had taken to get there.

Cambridge and Oxford play at the home of English rugby, every year, simply by virtue of their name. At least, that’s how it appeared to me, as I arrived at Cambridge with a second shot at the Twickenham pitch, within a year of my first.

Of course, that wasn’t the reason I was there: I had applied to Cambridge, like so many others, in pursuit of ‘academic rigour’, but rugby had been my passion for a decade and I didn’t plan to let academics get in the way. I had already arranged with Jack Baird, the Cambridge head coach, that we would split my training time between the university team and Saracens in London, where I could pursue an elite level of training with one of the best club sides in the U.K.

"I received phone calls variously asking how I felt about our chances, our training regime, the infamous size of the pitch – and always that question of what it meant to receive a Blue."Ben Phillips

This was because, quite frankly, my expectations for the Cambridge team were not high. Durham’s university set-up is the largest in the country, with three BUCS registered teams, an underlying system of college teams, and links with Premiership club DMP Sharks. In contrast, Cambridge had only one BUCS team and no serious college competition.

Thankfully, I voiced none of these doubts, and by the end of preseason I knew I had seriously underestimated both the team and the set-up. Cambridge played Durham in a preseason fixture, a match I had been thoroughly dreading as a thrashing from gleeful ex-teammates.

On paper Durham should have stormed the game: instead, it was a tense affair, the teams evenly matched and Durham pulling away only in the final fifteen minutes. Though the Cambridge players were significantly less experienced, they more than made up for it with tenacious determination and heartfelt fight. It was my first match in Light Blue, and immediately won my respect – and chagrin for my assumptions.

I was likewise taken aback by the sophistication of the club set-up. With three rugby coaches, a physio, S+C coach and video analyst, the Cambridge team did not go wanting. This year saw the first female player bursary, provided by CURUFC supporting stalwart Anton Price. The 2019-20 season also secured the first women’s-only team sponsor, David Hughes at Mulberry Risk, who subsidised a weekend training camp-cum-retreat in the fortnight before Varsity. Cambridge women were the only of four Varsity teams, including the men, to hold such intensive preparations in the run-up.

These support networks gave me an inkling of the depth of time, effort, energy (and money) invested into the Varsity Match. As a team, we enjoyed a successful first half of the season, and as December rolled around we sat second in the league to Cardiff, having already beaten Oxford convincingly on home soil. Confidence was high, but so were nerves. Cambridge had won the previous two Varsity fixtures, and this year would make a hattrick.

"With three rugby coaches, a physio, S+C coach and video analyst, the Cambridge team did not go wanting." CURUFC

On selection day, captain Fiona Shuttleworth spent hours cycling around town to individually deliver the news, both good and bad. It was a personal touch that highlighted just how much it meant to the players to pull on a Light Blue jersey, and for me drove home the privilege that I would be starting in my preferred position at 13.

For the first time, the match would be broadcast live on ITV. Player interviews and profiles abounded on social media. I received phone calls variously asking how I felt about our chances, our training regime, the infamous size of the pitch – and always that question of what it meant to receive a Blue.

I had arrived thinking Blues were yet another Cambridge tradition, steeped in prestige and ostentatious status. The eye-wateringly expensive blazers certainly seemed to suggest so. By the time Varsity arrived, I had begun to think of the Blues tradition as something else. Certainly, it was a matter of pride in representing Cambridge in a long-respected rivalry, stretching back decades. But the Varsity Match is about more than just playing against Oxford.

For starting fresher Lauren Gregory it was a nerve-wracking finish to her first term, while for veterinary student and Twickenham veteran Alice Elgar it would be her fifth Varsity Match. Star flankers Fiona and Jenni Shuttleworth would again play alongside their twin. To Hannah Samuels, one of our starting wingers, playing in the Light Blue meant honouring those who had worn it previously: the ‘old girls’, including her mum, who represented Cambridge 25 years before, when women weren’t allowed to play on the main pitch at Grange Road, let alone at Twickenham.

Winning a Blue was about seeing women’s sport recognised on equal standing, played on the same day and pitch as the men. For the coaches, the Varsity meant seeing their late-night, rain-drenched hours of hard work come to fruition on a national stage.

"But the Varsity Match is about more than just playing against Oxford."Ben Phillips

I can only speak for myself, but those were the things that in the end gave meaning to my Blue. Whether they give Oxbridge the right to play at Twickenham every year, I don’t know. That’s still down to years of tradition, academic standing, and elitist prestige. While I’m grateful for the experience – and all those who made it possible – my cherished memories of Cambridge won’t be of the awards ceremonies or press interviews that followed our third-in-a-row Varsity win.

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Scoring a winning try on the Twickenham pitch will always be special, but a Blue was far more than another opportunity to play in the national stadium. In years to come, it won’t be the Blues blazer hanging on my wall – it’ll probably be gathering dust in a cupboard. Instead, I expect I’ll hang pictures of post-match celebrations with my Light Blue team: players, coaches, supporters and all. They’re the ones who give my Blue meaning.

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