Former Wales centre Mike Hall recalls Cambridge University RUFC and Rugby World Cup days
Mike Hall probably epitomises the historical significance of the Varsity Match as well as any other player that has donned the famous Light Blue of Cambridge University.
The centre won 42 caps for Wales, appearing at two Rugby World Cups, but it was in the early stages of his international career that he made the university the priority.
It is not too extreme to say that rugby is more than just a passion in Wales, it is almost in the blood, however, in many regards, the same can be said of CURUFC.
Having won the Varsity Match in 1987, the then Wolfson College student returned to attempt back-to-back wins in 1988. However, he had earned a call-up to play for Wales on the Saturday after the Varsity Match, which was then on a Tuesday.
“Wales put me in a very invidious position,” said Hall. “It was my second Varsity Match and they had this rule at the time that you couldn’t play for anybody seven days before an international.
“I thought it was madness. I said ‘no, I will choose the Varsity Match’.
“It got huge publicity and many letters of support from people supporting Cambridge rugby.”
The scenario is difficult to imagine given the current status of global rugby, but does show the magnitude of the Varsity Match in the past.
It is further emphasised when Hall admits that it was not even a difficult decision to choose Cambridge over Wales.
“It was really straightforward,” he said. “It was the days of the old red phone boxes and I rang the captain, Mark Hancock, told him what was going on and he said ‘it’s your decision’.
“I said ‘there isn’t a decision, I want to play in the Varsity Match’.
“I suppose it was a little bit controversial or ground-breaking at the time, especially in Wales as you can imagine the reaction I got.
“But I got a lot of sympathy in Wales as well because to play on a Tuesday and play on a Saturday then didn’t seem to be that much of a problem.”
As events transpired, Hall was defeated in the Varsity Match on the Tuesday, but after Mark Ring was late for training and dropped, the Cambridge Blue was called into the Wales side – although the team were ultimately beaten by Romania.
It was the early stages of an international career that was to end as captain of the Wales side at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995, and also included a cap for the British & Irish Lions in 1989.
Hall, though, does not hold the world cup appearances as outstanding highlights of his playing days, mainly given the results and Wales’ propensity to shoot themselves in the foot.
In 1991, Alan Davies was brought in as head coach just before the world cup, and they suffered a surprise defeat to unfancied but hugely-talented Western Samoa.
Prior to 1995, there was another coach change just months before the world cup, with Alex Evans replacing Davies.
After a win over Japan and defeat to New Zealand, a one-point loss to Ireland meant they failed to get out of the pool stages.
It is fair to say that results impact the impression left by the world cup, but Hall does remember them as being amazing events, especially in South Africa in 1995.
He also feels that the magnitude and importance is of far greater significance in the current day and age.
“I have very fond memories of being involved with the world cup and everything that goes with it,” said Hall. “But, at the end of the day, it is about results and, ultimately, we failed in both (tournaments)because we didn’t get out of the group.
“The Five Nations was probably still more important than the world cup in 87 and 91, but I think it has grown massively, and that 95 was a watershed. And when England won it (in 2003), that took it to another level.
“It’s grown as a world event and become far more important for the cycle of international rugby. Everything is now built and structured towards a world cup.
“It’s a four-year cycle of players staying on contracts, or managers and coaches staying, it’s all become geared to that – it’s very exciting, it’s very different to my day.”
The same, of course, can be said about Cambridge University and the Varsity Match.
In the past, you had some of the best players in the world attending Oxford and Cambridge, and the Varsity Match was a key date in the rugby calendar.
It is why the 1987 renewal is one of the most memorable moments in Hall’s career.
“We were an under-rated team,” he says.
“We had people like Clough, Wainwright, Chris Oti in the team but we were the underdogs going into the game against Oxford because at the time they had the Rhodes Scholars so they had David Kirk, Brendan Mullin, Bill Calcraft and Bob Egerton.
“They had a very good team and the build-up to the Varsity Match was, sadly, a lot better then because it was a full house at Twickenham and we had a very successful term against big teams.
“I’ve been lucky as I’ve played for the Lions, Wales, captained Cardiff, played against international teams, played for the Baa-Baas when we beat South Africa, but in my career I would say that first Varsity Match is right up there as a very happy, fond memory.”
With that roll call of achievements and accolades from an impressive career, it just adds to what it means to play for Cambridge University in the Varsity Match.
You hear the current generations speak equally glowingly, despite the changes the game has gone through in the past two decades, but why does it mean so much?
“I think it’s because you are all the same age, there is a huge common purpose to it, you meet different people from different walks of life and you become friends for life,” said Hall.
“It’s a unique thing where you’re all thrown together that one term, it’s very intense, you train every day, the whole atmosphere around Grange Road, the whole press coverage at the time, it is a unique situation.”
Hall has remained good friends with many of his team-mates from those Varsity Matches, and is looking forward to the reunion in September to mark the start of the Rugby World Cup.
It seems set to be a memorable evening.
FINAL CALLING FOR WALES
Mike Hall is optimistic that Wales will reach the Rugby World Cup final in Japan.
They took over the world No 1 spot after beating England two weeks ago, and held their status after England’s victory over Ireland last weekend.
For Hall, it is difficult to see anyone but New Zealand winning the competition, however, he has high hopes for his countrymen.
“I can’t see past New Zealand winning it again,” he says. “They are such a great team, and a little bit ahead of us in the way they attack, but I can see Wales getting to the final – anything can happen then.
“I think we have the best coach. I think Warren Gatland is unique and the best Welsh coach we’ve ever had. He is also very good at getting a team to peak at the right moment.
“We need some luck with injuries, we need a few things to go our way but let’s get to the final and then anything can happen.”
He added: “It would be lovely to see a Wales v New Zealand final.”