The staging of this year’s eagerly anticipated London Varsity match between UCL and Kings has been put into doubt this week after it was announced the game will be moved to a field and run as a regular league match, though union officials insist they are working on an ‘alternative format’. A petition calling for a referendum on the issue has been set up, but time is running out to find a venue and secure the event, which is considered an integral part of UCL’s social calendar.
It all began on Monday 12th, when rugby players were told via their Facebook group that this year’s Varsity had been cancelled. UCLU’s Student Activities Officer Abdul-Ahad Akbari informed the rugby club President Tom Carr that concerns over crowd safety meant the match could not go ahead as usual. Many will remember how trouble erupted during last year’s game as the Kings mascot punched his opposite number in the face, a fight broke out between UCL students and smoke flares were let off. This trouble was dismissed by one witness as ‘public school boys getting pissed’, but was enough for Harlequins, the owners of the Twickenham Stoop stadium and a club with family values, to impose certain demands on the unions. One of these demands was a guarantee that crowd trouble would not happen again, something the unions felt could not be assured given the culture of drinking surrounding the game.
The players were later told that the game was back on, but was to be played at Berrylands playing grounds on a Wednesday afternoon. At this point players Elliot Mills and Nadir Basma set up an online petition proposing that a referendum be held that would guarantee the match being played as normal. Failure to properly organise the game, they argued, would count as a failure of duty by the union whose job it is to ensure the success of traditional events. It was also thought that some of UCLU’s sponsorship deals relied on Varsity going ahead as normal and that its cancellation might lead to costly compensation for the firms involved, but Pi has been assured that the deals are worded to allow for its cancellation and that no money would be lost to the students.
Abdul-Ahad Akbari, who lists last year’s Varsity match among his achievements, has been accused of incompetence by some within the club who feel he should have done more to secure a proper venue. They expressed concerns that he was aware of problems in securing the venue long before he informed the club president, something he did not deny when asked. It is also suggested that concerns over crowd safety are a distraction from the unions’ mistakes and some solutions, such as separating the crowd, have been put forward to sidestep this issue.
However a joint statement issued by both unions denies the accusations of ineptitude, arguing instead that the crowd’s behaviour last year has been the decisive factor. The unions did present the Harlequins with a detailed plan, which was highly praised by the venue, but the crucial guarantee of safety could not be given. It should also be stressed that finances were not an issue at any time and that the unions would pay for extra security, although because this would not remove the possibility of trouble outside the ground it became irrelevant.
It was suggested by some inside UCLU that this should hardly come as a surprise. They see the smoke flares as an indication that some spectators’ actions were premeditated, and that to allow the same culture of heavy drinking and violence to happen again would go beyond the line of a healthy rivalry that everyone enjoys. Besides the premeditated trouble is the fact that when last year’s game was stopped, the crowd didn’t notice. As rugby club President Tom Carr said, ‘It’s a sporting event and it’s not being treated as one’. If the unions are purposefully trying to redefine the culture surrounding the event it could be argued that a year off is necessary, though of course not everyone will agree. The event could certainly not grow with the potential for trouble looming over every game. Tom Carr also rejected the claim of incompetence levelled at the unions and praised their efforts to organise an acceptable alternative, though it remains to be seen what these alternatives are. Both Carr and KCLSU Student Activities Officer Kiki Johnson told Pi that fans should not expect a similar experience this year, though neither of them, nor Abdul-Ahad Akbari, would say under what conditions the game will be played when asked.
Even if these disputes are resolved, some fear it may already be too late to organise the game properly. Stadiums need to be contacted, arrangements made – last year’s match was organised by September. This might seem like a lot of fuss for a rugby match, but to many students this is an essential social event, a highlight of the year. If the match can be played without pride turning to shame, it must, and hopefully will go on.
Look out for updates both online and in the newspaper as the story develops.