Great Sporting Rivalries: Nottingham Varsity Series

Take your everyday Nottingham student. Let’s call him Dan for the sake of convenience. Dan’s still in his first year, he’s living in a hall on campus and returning after Christmas fresh out of his first term. During this time, unbending loyalty to his university and place of residence for the rest of the year has been drilled into him by his Week One and Karni reps, so far into his brain in fact that a CT scan would probably show up his fresher’s wristband. Dan’s also a lover of sport, but though he’s passionate enough to nip up to the JCR to catch Match of the Day, he’s also not inclined to join any of the seventy-six clubs represented by the Athletic Union. Next month Dan will find himself gracing venues such as the Trent FM Arena and Meadow Lane, watching Nottingham University take on Trent in his first Varsity series.

Now ask Dan this question: Would he sooner Nottingham beat say, Loughborough in BUCS and became the country’s leading sporting university? Or would he prefer Nottingham to beat the country’s twenty seventh-placed sporting university and so their position remained unchanged? The twenty-seventh is Nottingham Trent, so it’s a no-brainer.

It’s always Trent, only Trent. After a Uni-Trent Varsity series, all other university sport is black and white to so many students of the students who will be watching. Come one of the showpiece events such as ice-hockey in February, everyone will be fizzing with it, talking about it. It’s truly overwhelming. Nottingham University are battling Nottingham Trent for the Varsity series – what else in university sport could rival that?

Well, maybe the Oxford and Cambridge boat race if we’re placing stock in such humdrum things as sporting excellence. But we’re not, and that’s the point. True, Nottingham conquering a university such as Loughborough or Bath is a hell of a harder achievement, but it’s just not the same. This is the one everyone wants.

The moment the long-clichéd chants directed at our formerly-polytechnic rivals begin, that strange hatred-defined loyalty will start to overcome so many previously indifferent students. It is a strange thing, to define sport, something you love, by something you hate. It must be part of that human need for polarity. If we love something, we must hate its antithesis – and Trent is just that antithesis.

But sport is a conveyor belt of rivalries, a conduit for deep and bitter hatreds. Varsity has become a traditional aspect of life as a Nottingham student, as once a year two parts of a city come together to celebrate their loathing for one another. In order to be one kind of student, you must first hate another kind. This is not to say hatred is essential – all that is required is a marrow-deep intensity, a true desire not only to win a match but to beat this particular opponent above all others. We don’t necessarily need any bad blood, just red blood.

But perhaps this question is worth asking: how healthy could the obsession be? Has it enabled the participating clubs to improve, or has it possibly obscured our vision of the bigger picture, of higher goals than the Varsity series? Last year the swim team dominated their Varsity, winning every one of their twenty-four races. Their then-President, Tom Beach, was indifferent when pointed out the crowd, who were by then both dumbstruck and ecstatic at such a dominant victory. The previous week they had finished 5th in their BUCS, with Trent left a considerable number of places behind. Upon hearing this, you could tell for them the hard work was already over before Varsity had started.

But this is not to say there was no passion in their victory. They know Varsity offers something different; it offers a spotlight, an adulation few of the athletes competing could get anywhere else. Just ask the footballers or ice-hockey players from last year – who both had to overcome nerve-wracking penalty-shootouts to lay claim to their Varsity cups for the year – how much it mattered to win on such a massive stage. Ask Mervyn Tasker, who made a string of saves to give Uni an ice-hockey victory in a Trent FM Arena packed to the rafters with over six thousand fans, why that Varsity game was so important to him and to his team and he would not have to think for very long.

Tasker was given man of the match in that fixture. He rose to the occasion and pushed himself to meet the challenges it brought him. Fine individual performances such as this, along with the likes of Izzy Joris, Pat Simpson and Tom Cliffe, show why this city’s Varsity is shaping up to be a fair old rivalry, and shows that for all talk of hatred, for both the crowd and competitors, rivalries ignite sport.

And make no mistake, with the Varsity series still growing in sports this is a rivalry still very much ignited. For rivalries aflame, it is not only the contestants but also the contest that matters – the value of the whole thing is doubled. One might hope for their own loyalties that both Manchester United and City fail to win when facing each other, but if you care for the sport you will nonetheless watch this doubly-charged match, just as all of America will stand still to watch the Red Sox take on the Yankees.

At the end of the day, a real rivalry will need no hyping. It is there to be witnessed in the extraordinary performances from the likes of Tasker that are brought out by the sheer intensity of the occasion; small but special things to savour. Last year Uni wasted a resounding lead halfway through the series to lose overall 8-6. Along the way we were treated to tense thrillers, thrashings, and cheerleaders – even in defeat, we were left us so many of those small things to savour. It would be very greedy to expect the same this time around, wouldn’t it? But who knows? We’ll ask our man Dan when it’s over.

Impact will be bringing you all coverage you could need from the 2011 Charity Varsity Series over the web. Be sure to check out in the coming weeks for all the Varsity reports, news, and previews.

Tim Edwards


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