The Scottish Varsity Match between Scotland's two oldest university rugby clubs dates back more than 150 years and predates the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Match. Formed in 1857 and 1858, respectively, Edinburgh University RFC and the University of St Andrews RFC are two of the oldest rugby clubs in the world, with only the Edinburgh Academical FC claiming a longer existence in Scotland. In fact the first recognised game of rugby between two club sides in Scotland took place on the 26th December 1857 between the Edinburgh Academical FC and Edinburgh University.
By the mid-1860s several former pupils’ clubs had been established in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow, and regular fixtures were organised between club sides and the two Universities. At this time, St Andrews was regarded as the ‘nursery of Rugby Football in Scotland’ and ‘the first batch of famous players just before the days of internationals, were St Andrews men’. In fact, ‘passing’, the great feature of the back game was initiated in St Andrews by two students, H. L. Dick and A. Thom.
Following several meetings convened by the Edinburgh Academical FC in 1868, the rules for the rugby game in Scotland were finally set out and printed in a booklet entitled ‘Laws of Football as played by the Principal Clubs in Scotland’, commonly referred to thereafter as ‘the Green Book’. In the early days teams would gather on local parkland, cricket fields and even golf courses, with huge crowds of local spectators forming the boundary of the pitch and games often lasting well over two hours. Initially, points were not awarded for a try (sometimes referred to as a ‘touch’), but instead this feat gave the scoring side an opportunity for an attempt at a goal. Unsurprisingly, this led to many games ending in a draw, despite one side scoring several more tries than their opponents. The form of the game at this point appeared to vary between fifteens and twenties, up until 1877 when fifteen-a-side became the norm. The style of play is nicely illustrated by article in the Dundee Courier and Argus for the 1883 fixture between St Andrews and Edinburgh. “Edinburgh had the kick-off, and elected to face the wind. For a brief period the ball was maintained in neutral ground, when some stiff mauls, which the Edinburgh men carried, took place...During the remainder of the period the play did not call for special remark, the ball for the most part being in the middle of the field.”
By the 1870s inter-varsity rugby matches had become a common feature of the football calendar in Scotland for those clubs playing the rugby rules, with annual fixtures observed between St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland’s four oldest university rugby clubs. In the first international rugby match in 1871 between Scotland and England, three St Andrews students (A. Clunies-Ross, R. Munro and J. S. Thomson) and three Edinburgh students (A Buchanan, W Forsyth and J W McFarlane) are seen to have represented Scotland, showing the importance of both University clubs at this time. In fact both clubs, along with Glasgow University RFC founded in 1869, were amongst eight founder members of the Scottish Football Union (founded in 1873), which later became the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) in 1924.
The inter-varsity match between Edinburgh and St Andrews dates back to the 1860s, but has by no means been an annual occurrence. During the early years of rugby in Scotland ‘a match was a special and rare event’ and ‘a game with sides picked on the spot was the normal form of the sport’. This helps explain the sporadic nature of the inter-varsity fixture at this time, but by the 1870s an annual fixture is seen to have existed between the two universities'. Nevertheless many games had to be cancelled due to the weather, with the fixture consistently scheduled for late December every year. By the 1904-1905 Season the inter-varsity match had been moved to mid February and annual fixtures are seen to have taken place over the next eight years, with each side securing four victories during this period.
Of particular note is the gap in the fixtures between 1912 and 1919 as a consequence of the 1st World War, during which the club in St Andrews appears to have been disbanded. It wasn’t until the 1923-1924 Season, however, that the fixture was reinstated, with Edinburgh taking the honours by 23-3. By the end of the 1920s St Andrews had regained its pre-war standing thanks to a much improved fixture list, and went on to take the upper hand in the inter-varsity fixture gaining victories over four consecutive seasons from 1931. In 1939 at the outbreak of the 2nd World War many members of the club went on active service and the form of the side began to dramatically decline once again. Edinburgh by contrast grew from strength to strength and dominated the fixture during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, winning 22 games during this period, with St Andrews gaining victory on only 10 occasions. Other noteworthy events during this time were the absence of the fixture during the 1944-1945 Season when the University of St Andrews was placed under quarantine due to an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) and the formation of Dundee University apart from St Andrews in 1966.
The 1980s saw a revitalised St Andrews side, which was now able to compete with Edinburgh and a strong Aberdeen side who had dominated the Scottish University Championship during the 1970s. Between 1987 and 1993 Edinburgh and St Andrews battled against each other to be the top university side in Scotland with three championship victories each during this time. With increased competition in the Scottish Universities Championship, inter-varsity rugby matches became much tighter, and the cup changed hands numerous times in the mid to late 1990s. In 2003 Edinburgh won the championship for the first time in 10 years and over the next three seasons went on to retain the title, but only after a hard fought contest each year with St Andrews who consistently took second place.
Following two poor seasons, Edinburgh regained the title for the 2010-2011 Season and were subsequently promoted from the Scottish Conference to the BUCS Premier North B league. With no league fixtures scheduled between the two university sides for the forthcoming season, a friendly match was organised at the Richmond Athletic Ground in London. The inaugural Scottish Varsity Match turned out to be a huge success with over 1500 spectators in attendance and the game covered by Sky Sports, the BBC and IRB’s Total Rugby. Edinburgh University ran out worthy winners 32-0.
Edinburgh University won the Scottish Varsity Match for the second year in a row when the sides met again in 2012, beating St Andrews 28-8 after a hard-fought contest at the Richmond Athletic Ground. The 2012 match was the second time the fixture had been played in London. It was preceded by a dinner attended by her Royal Highness Princess Anne, Edinburgh University Chancellor and patron to London Scottish, at the Caledonian Club in London.
When the two sides met again in 2013 for the third match at the Richmond Athletic Ground, St Andrews took revenge, the final score ending 24-15. Following this success St Andrews went on to be undefeated in their Scottish Championship campaign, but narrowly lost out in the playoffs, which would have seen both universities competing in the BUCS Premier North B league in 2014-15.
St Andrews went on to retain the Scottish Varsity Match trophy in 2014 after another tightly contested battle, eventually winning 17-12.
In addition to the men’s game, the 2014 event also saw the inaugural Women’s Varsity Match take place in the form of a sevens game, played during half-time. Edinburgh proved to be the much stronger outfit and ran away with the victory 24-0.
In 2015 the Scottish Varsity Match came home to Scotland after four successful fixtures in London at the Richmond Athletic Ground. Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the match was played at BT Murrayfield in front of 10,000 spectators, with the Women’s 1st XV fixture preceding the main match on the international pitch.
A full report can be found on the University of St Andrews' news pages.
Highlights from the 2015 Fixtures can be found on the Scottish Rugby TV YouTube Channel.