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Cambridge University RUFC building links between Town and Gown

On and off the pitch, the Light Blues are having an impact. Picture: Keith Heppell
On and off the pitch, the Light Blues are having an impact. Picture: Keith Heppell

Twickenham is the platform to the world for Cambridge University Rugby Union Football Club, and yet, it is only the window dressing for so much that happens at Grange Road.

The Steele-Bodger XV match on the penultimate Wednesday of every November acts as the open-door event to the great and good of Cambridge, while for more interested parties there are weekly matches in the Michaelmas Term – this year seven at home.

It still though does not do testament to the amount of outreach schemes and projects in which the Light Blues have become engaged in recent years.

Through the Lions’ Den events for youngsters from local clubs to touch rugby tournaments, from the Powerhouse Games to visits to Leonard Cheshire Disability, CURUFC are determined to become more focussed on the wider city.

“One of the important issues for Cambridge University rugby club that I witnessed last year is the way in which the players of both the women’s and men’s teams engaged in a number of events with the community,” says Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, president of CURUFC.

“I think it’s very important that the people in Cambridge see that Cambridge University RUFC is not an elitist group that wall themselves off but actually that we are part and parcel of the community.

“I also know that the players really enjoy that engagement themselves, as do all of us that are associated with the club. Yes, if we can help that’s what we’d like to do but also not to forget how much all of us participating in these events actually enjoy them as well. It’s giving back.”

Cambridge University RUFC president Sir Leszek Borysiewicz. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University RUFC president Sir Leszek Borysiewicz. Picture: Keith Heppell

Sir Leszek was vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 2010 to 2017, and an avid sports fan.

Growing up in Wales, it was perhaps only natural that rugby union would become one of his major passions – although much more as a spectator than a player.

It was in fact cricket that became a more natural fit for his sporting abilities, playing to university level while at medical school in Wales.

In his seven years as Cambridge’s vice chancellor, Sir Leszek was a big advocate for sport at the university and during that time they opened the sports centre at West Cambridge and the combined boathouse at Ely.

“I’ve always viewed sport as an important component for the time that students spend at university,” he says.

“You can’t just study all the time, and study at Cambridge is very intensive for our undergraduate and postgraduate students.

“Having the right facilities and opportunities for people to engage with both collegiate sport, which the colleges provide, but also with representative sport where people want to take a more ‘professional approach’ to playing at a higher level is important to give students the opportunity.

“They are remarkable individuals who obtain Blues in whatever sport they participate in, and I think it’s very important that students also have another activity in addition to the academic activities.

“It doesn’t always need to be sport, it could be drama, music or a variety, but education here for the university is very intensive. I think it’s important to maintain that balance.

“Those who are in the rugby club, actually participating by engaging with the community, it gives them a broader perspective so they really are gaining a lot by these interactions.”

Lions' Den event at Grange Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lions' Den event at Grange Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

After those early forays into rugby, it was when Sir Leszek returned to head up the department of medicine at the University of Wales that he became more involved with the sport again.

He took over as president of Cardiff Medicals RFC from Tasker Watkins – the Welsh Rugby Union president from 1993 to 2004, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Second World War.

“He was a brilliant man, an amazing individual,” says Sir Leszek. “I’ve never seen anybody humbler who has won a Victoria Cross than he was. That was a real privilege during that time.”

On joining Imperial College, London, he was involved with Imperial Medicals RFC, and so, on moving to Cambridge, it was second nature to engage with CURUFC.

When Mark Bailey stood down as president of the Light Blues after seven years in November 2017, it was announced that Sir Leszek would be his successor.

“The trouble is, as a Welshman, rugby is part of your transfusion that happens very early in life,” he says.

“Many would say for a Welshman, when you finish at being vice chancellor, this was promotion to have that opportunity to be elected president of the club, particularly a single honour that I really do enjoy.”

Powerhouse Games at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Powerhouse Games at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The overarching appeal of rugby union for Sir Leszek is its sense of community and how it has the power to be a great unifier.

The city caters for both ends Cambridge Rugby Club on the elite professional side and CURUFC at the pinnacle of the amateur game.

Grange Road’s central location places it at the geographical heart of Cambridge, and the president believes that should be used to aid participation and enjoyment.

“People who are average players, or in my case very average to bad, can still enjoy playing the sport and there are so many ways in which this sport can bind people together,” he says.

“That is something that gives it a community of itself. Reaching out to the wider community to let people know that you can actually enjoy and participate in this sport at whatever level you can play is very important.

“Over and above that, the players particularly have engaged in helping less able bodied individuals participate in a variety of sporting activities.

“I look at the rugby club and I see it as a great community.

“I’m immensely proud that the men and women came together and decided that they want the club to operate jointly.

“It’s a great group of committed players and people who are volunteers around the club that keep it going.”

He adds: “It is this coming together, between the community and the university, where both people in Cambridge as well as people within the university can enjoy what the club can offer.”

It means that although the spotlight may be on facing Oxford at Twickenham on Thursday, December 12, you can rest assured that there is far more going on behind the scenes and out in the community at Cambridge University RUFC.

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