Varsity Match 2022: One-off game brings new experience for former England fly-half Toby Flood with Cambridge University RUFC
Having played in the biggest one-shot game in world rugby, Toby Flood is in a more privileged position than most to assess a match that means just as much to Cambridge University RUFC.
All the build-up fixtures – there have been 13 this year – are rendered virtually obsolete as the only thing that matters to the Light Blues is victory over Oxford in the Varsity Match.
It is an anomaly in the sporting calendar in many ways, and one the former England fly-half is set to experience this Saturday (April 2, kick off 3.30pm) in the Jefferies Varsity Match.
Flood reached the pinnacle of the sport, representing the country on 60 occasions, winning three Premiership titles with Leicester Tigers, making 141 appearances for Newcastle Falcons, and spending three seasons in France with Toulouse.
He also played in a Rugby World Cup final with England, in the 15-6 defeat to South Africa in France in 2007.
“Any knockout tournament there is a focus on one game, whether it be a quarter-final or last 16 it’s still one game, but you know there is something else to come, theoretically,” said Flood.
“Whereas this one, from what I understand, you can lose every single game and win that one and you’ve had a good year, which is a paradox in itself.
“It’s quite remarkable, yes. I think the uniqueness of this fixture has resonated for a while now.”
It has marked a return to the amateur game which Flood has not experienced in almost two decades.
He arrived at Cambridge University to do an MBA and quickly adjusted to life being a student again.
One of the earliest purchases was a bike. “I’ve become fully studentised,” he says. “My commute is a pretty special one, from Queens’ to the Judge Business School.
“The city itself has been amazing. It has been pretty special, actually.”
Having been a member of the Falcons’ academy, the last time he was part of an amateur team was straight after school, with Morpeth in the RFU North League, at tier six.
“It was absolutely brilliant, I absolutely loved it,” he says. “It was just men kicking lumps out of people.
“It was a big shock for a schoolboy rugby player who three months previous there was no level of contact – it was just fun. It was an era when no-one did any weights.”
Just like at Morpeth, where players would have had other professions, for the majority in the Cambridge squad rugby is not the priority.
Their primary focus is academia, and it is something that is not lost on Flood, who suggests it puts an even more different take on the concept of the amateur game.
“In amateur rugby clubs, the weekends are the big release, maybe for a bit of pent-up aggression or frustration during the week,” laughs Flood. “You come to train, have a bit of a crack with the lads and then go out and play.
“Whereas I think what you find with this dynamic is that there is that pent-up aggression because the studies are hard, but it’s also the burden of whatever course they are doing is sat on their shoulders so to do this is a real stretch for them.
“What I’ve learned is they are actually delighted to play and want to play, but you can see them come in some days exhausted from the course because they have been up since whatever time.
“It’s just incredible. It’s been really fun getting to know that part. I think that bodes well for both sides, Oxford and Cambridge – you realise the effort they have to put in to be here, that’s massive.”
At 36, Flood is on the outer extreme of the age range.
Full-back Jamie Benson, who is on Harlequins books and has represented England under-20s in the recent Six Nations, and replacement back Sam Odu are at the other end of the spectrum as freshers.
It is nothing too new though. Flood has seen the make-up of the professional squads continuously evolve through his career.
“I think the enjoyable thing about being in rugby is it keeps you young because every year there is a new tranche of boys coming in,” he explains.
“I always remember the first time I met a guy who was born in the year 2000 which terrified me – Rob Farrar, who plays for Newcastle at the moment. The 16th of March, 2000, that’s his birthday, I will never forget that.
“Now I’m playing with guys who were born in 2003, 2004, turning 18, so it makes you realise you’re quite old, but I’m enjoying the fact that actually in a sporting environment everybody acts the same way.
“There are big personalities, small personalities, age isn’t really a factor and it’s been quite nice in that respect.”
But it does not preclude Flood from passing on his knowledge and advice to the younger lads.
Since announcing his playing retirement last September, he has been the kicking and skills coach at Newcastle Falcons.
However, he believes that the ability to nurture comes more through the playing position.
“The thing with fly-half is you end up being really involved in the high-level detail stuff because you have to know everyone’s role and you have to know everyone’s line, and all that sort of stuff,” he explains.
“Then it depends how much time you invest as an individual to pick apart that really high level detail, so I think you’re always coaching on the field, you’re always organising, setting out structure, etc.
“I think it is a natural progression. Most fly-halves will probably go into coaching just purely because they are used to that level of communication on the field and then off it as well.”
However, it is not a long-term fit for Flood, and coming to study an MBA is part of the next stage of his life. He had already committed to the course before making the decision to retire.
The intention was to initially do it alongside playing for the Falcons but, having got part way through pre-season a knee injury curtailed the plans and the coaching role meant he would be able to finish out the year after signing a professional contract.
“It worked quite well that I would parachute into Cambridge, and it was probably easier in a coaching role than a playing role,” says Flood.
“If I was playing, losing three months, February to April, would have been quite difficult so it was probably easier in a coaching sense.”
After deciding not to continue in the coaching world, the ‘real world’ awaits as, after 18 years travelling the world, Flood looks to “bed down somewhere to call it home”.
A return to academia has been a good segue and builds on studying throughout his playing days and a degree in business management from Northumbria University, with the real estate sector a target profession.
“It was more a case of reattaching myself to what was happening in the world at an older age,” he says.
“It was a pretty easy decision. It was pretty tough to get in, I have to admit, trying to get my brain back into gear and do the EA [Executive Assessment] version of GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test].
“But it was totally worth it.”
No doubt it will be boosted even more if Cambridge beat Oxford this Saturday.