Varsity In Our City: Part One
Just when you thought Wales was too small a country for another rivalry, two teams are building themselves up to become the university equivalent of 'El Clásico'. The Welsh Varsity match between Cardiff and Swansea has been known to pit brother against brother, and friend against friend.
Swansea, triumphant in the last two Varsity meetings, have won ten from fifteen since this unique event kicked off in 1997. (There has only been one draw: 10-10 at Cardiff Arms Park in 2001.) Cardiff's four victories, however, were achieved in the space of seven years, from 2002 to 2009 - an indication of increased competitiveness.
Cardiff only gained promotion to the top British Universities league last year, and while many expected them to drop straight back down, they have thrived on the challenges posed by such established sides as Bath, UWIC and Hartpury. So much so, in fact, that they ended the season in third place: the top Welsh side in the league. On their way, they beat Swansea in both home and away fixtures and, in a feat that I believe makes them favourites at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday, they became the first Cardiff University side to beat cross-town rivals UWIC.
Busloads of Swansea University students will arrive in Cardiff on Wednesday morning. You'll know them from their green 'Varsity' t-shirts and general air of merriment. The streets of the city will run red as well as green, with Cardiff University's student body out to compete with a Swansea counterpart equally renowned for its carousing. It could be an anthropologist's dream, studying this demographic in its natural element: like a more mature Lord of the Flies, if they'd managed to put together a sports day on the island.
True story: a friend of mine was at a Varsity match supporting his fellow Swansea alumni around a decade ago in the Arms Park. Upon leaving the ground, he was accosted by a group of Cardiff University fans who called him and his friends 'Jack b******s' (Jack being the slang word for somebody from Swansea), little knowing that these boys were actually native Cardiffians. They ended up brawling two minutes away from his mother's house in Riverside, in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium: a rare but majestic example of passions running over.
That's the peculiar thing about Varsity games: it's not about where you're from -I'd wager that a bigger chunk of the fans are from England- but which university you're affiliated with. I know many a Cardiff soul born in the city who will be supporting Swansea because they have studied there.
The rugby match is a culmination of a day of sports held in the capital city. Given the back seat sport appears to be taking at an educational level these days, the Varsity is a reassurance that not all young people in Britain are wasting their precious window of athletic prowess in front of Call of Duty: Rwandan Genocide and greasy pizza boxes.
As well as the showpiece at the Millennium Stadium, games will be held at the Welsh Institute of Sport and Pontcanna Fields. Besides the more obvious events such as football, netball and hockey, the universities will also be competing against each other in lacrosse, tae kwon do and the paradoxically named Ultimate Frisbee (a game I'm told doesn't include explosive devices or razor-edged Frisbees).
As with last year's Varsity, the match is being broadcast live on S4C. This is a feather in the cap for the Welsh-language channel, which can proudly boast among its recent stirring accomplishments a farming version of The X Factor. As well as the roaring crowd, being on television adds an extra dimension for these players, many of whom will be looking to impress some of Wales's top coaches.
The carnival-like environment of the Varsity match is more reminiscent of a sevens tournament than a game of rugby union, which makes it all the more special.
One player who has experienced a rich and diverse tapestry of rugby in a short space of time is Cardiff University forward Arthur Ellis. At junior level, the Londoner played for Richmond, before being offered a place at another highly distinguished city club, Wasps, at the age of eighteen. From there he returned to his Welsh roots (his father Gwyn, once a Neath player, was also no stranger to Varsity rugby, having been an Oxford Blue), representing Newport Gwent Dragons alongside older brother Hugo. Since last season he has been enjoying life with the Bridgend Ravens, which, along with the former England Under-20 player's past experiences, has helped the 21-year-old in his preparations for the Varsity.
"Looking back at it now, the players I've managed to play and train with is staggering," says Ellis, recently converted from hooker to openside flanker. "People like Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley, Raphael Ibañez - the list is endless really. I still remember it now, being in that environment with them; how hard they trained was incredible to see."
Now in a battle against relegation and financial uncertainty, London Wasps are increasingly looking like a fallen empire, with Heineken Cup and Premiership wins a distant memory. "It's really sad to see them in the state they're in," he says. "I really hope they get out of it, because if they go down that could be the end of them. They've got no real assets behind them; they don't own a training ground or the ground they play at. All they have is their Premiership status."
In his first year of studying Business Management at Cardiff University, Ellis should have more than a few ideas about how a struggling club like Wasps can recover. While he hasn't left his house to be greeted by a new sports car with the key in the ignition, as some American collegiate athletes are accustomed to, the university does assist its players with funding for practical things such as gym membership.
Given the level of excitement surrounding the Varsity match on Wednesday, do any of the rugby boys experience the so-called 'Big Dog on Campus' effect? "No one knows me around campus at all," he admits, somewhat ruefully. "Nobody turns their head when I walk into Costa Coffee, nobody in my lectures knows that I play rugby."
Something that could change if Cardiff turn the tide in the Varsity after the last two defeats to Swansea. "That depends on how I play! People will know me if I play terribly, but hopefully for the right reasons we might get some recognition."
When Ellis says that Cardiff University have got an incredible team this season, you sense that he actually means it. While he is loath to single out any players, we discuss the likes of captain and Cardiff Blues-bound tighthead prop Jake Cooper-Woolley ("a really destructive force"), former Dragon and Wales U20 number eight James Thomas ("a class player" - also Ellis's housemate) and Welsh Students inside centre Ross Wardle ("he's one to look out for: big and physical but also a good distributor").
Warren Gatland was evidently impressed by Cooper-Woolley after his performance in Cardiff's 2010 loss to Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. In the Cardiff changing room after the match, the Wales coach said in a just-kidding-but-not-really manner that he'd "like to have a word with your tighthead". At the time, Cooper-Woolley, a proud Englishman, told me that he'd never entertain the notion of playing for any other country, but Gatland has been known to be persuasive.
"You never know with Wales. A few good games for your region and you're in the Welsh squad," suggests Ellis. We know what happened to another Englishman who joined the Blues not so long ago (though, at over 120kg, Cooper-Woolley might not have quite the right physique for show jumping).
If you thought I was being a bit a bit over-dramatic with my opening 'friend versus friend' gambit, it turns out Ellis will actually be playing against one of his best friends on Wednesday. Jonathan Vaughan is Ellis's teammate at the Ravens, and will be packing down at blindside flanker for Swansea University. He describes his friend as "one hell of a player and an unbelievable tackler, so hopefully he doesn't smash my shins because he likes to go low".
The Swansea link doesn't end there, because the forwards coach at Bridgend is none other than Richard Lancaster, head coach of Swansea University. Hence Ellis will be playing against more than one familiar face. "We've tweeted and texted each other," says Ellis. "They've been working really hard in preparation, as have we. They are my friends at the end of the day, so it should be good playing against them, what with the little niggles and stuff."
The only thing that appears to be majorly concerning Ellis in the run-up to the Varsity is which boots he should wear: "I've got a choice of electric blue or black and orange. Hopefully I can do them justice by scoring one or two tries." It's not an impossibility, given that the speedy forward scored in that famous victory against UWIC.
Having said this, Ellis will be relaxed about playing in front of thousands of screaming voices because he has experienced the infamous hostility of South American rugby fans. During the 2010 IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina, England faced the host side in Rosario. "I forgot how much the Argentineans still really hate the English," he says. The team was subjected to aerial bombardments throughout the match - though thankfully not of the kind seen in the Falklands that had presumably caused such animosity in the first place.
Here, the worst Ellis can expect is being exposed to the jiggly bits of the streakers that have been known to emerge from the crowd during these grand occasions. He has played in some of rugby's biggest venues, including Twickenham, but believes "nothing really prepares you for the Millennium Stadium".
How does he cope with mixing rugby and studying at one of the best business schools in the UK? "It is tough," he confesses. "Bridgend is quite far away, so I have to factor in a lot of time on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday. It eats into a lot of work and revision time, but I love playing rugby."
While doing my research prior to this interview, I browsed Ellis's Wikipedia page - this blog is built on a foundation of journalistic integrity, after all - and found that he had some peculiar sponsorship deals. To quote the entry, these include 'Cherryade, Lilt and Nobby's Nuts. It is estimated that Ellis makes around £13 a week from these endorsements.'
"It's a good deal," he laughs. "They're getting me cheap!"
You don't have to be a student to enjoy the spectacle that is the Welsh Varsity. While I can't be seen to condone taking time off work to go and watch these students take part in an exciting day of sport (and drink, let's get real here), if you do happen to feel 'a little under the weather', you'd be better served spending the day out in the open rather than being stuck in the office, installing Adobe Acrobat Reader for the umpteenth time this week.
If you are one of those who feel morally bankrupt at the mere thought of feigning illness to avoid work, take heart in the fact that the rugby kicks off at 7pm.
It's going to be a magnificent day for British sport. Don't miss out.
Cardiff University Varsity Squad:
1. Bradley Thyer 2. Ross Grimstone 3. Jake Cooper-Woolley (captain) 4. Nicholas Huntley 5. Craig Lodge 6. Jordan Wood 7. Arthur Ellis 8. James Thomas 9. Jonny Macdonald 10. Cameron Pimlow (vice-captain) 11. Rhys Howell 12. Ross Wardle 13. Elliot Jones 14. Will Jones 15. Charlie Simpson
Substitutes: 16. Geoff Lewin 17. Jamie Pincott 18. Llewelyn Jones 19. Lee Bray 20. Rhys Luckwell 21. Alex Devereux 22. Matthew Purcell 23. Steffan Morgan 24. Max Woodward 25. Joe Casella
Location: Millennium Stadium. Tickets cost £10.00. Entry: 17.30 (19.00 K.O.)
For more information, see welshvarsity.com