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Is Royal Holloway holding Surrey’s Varsity back? by Michael Slavin

For countless students at Surrey, there is one undeniable highlight of the year: our Varsity event against Royal Holloway. Whether for sporting or social reasons, each year Varsity is one of the very first dates us as students mark on our calendars, and for good reason too. Varsity is described by the Team Surrey website as “a day of sporting battle… over 1500 students play and spectate in a series of fixtures across the day, culminating in a huge finale in the main arena to see who will be crowned Varsity Champions and take the local bragging rights that year”. Despite these lofty descriptions - to me it lives up to this and so much more. It is an opportunity for clubs who spend much of the year in friendly rivalry firing pot-shots and digs at one another to be brought together by their mutual desire to get one over on our rivals from down the road. It is an opportunity for sporting heroes to be crowned, allowing several smaller clubs a chance in the spotlight of huge crowds. It is an opportunity to, win or lose, bond over a VK or four at Rubix afterwards and have a great night. I could very easily be accused of exaggerating slightly here, but to me Varsity is simply the day of the year where Surrey feels most like a community.

This has been made clear to me after having participated in two Varsities since joining: one on the sporting side of things and one as part of student media. Despite my love for the day, there does seem to be a recurring problem with Varsity that I feel needs addressing.

Our Varsity rivalry with Royal Holloway started back in 2017, and it came into existence in large part due to our previous rivalry with Kingston University no longer being tenable. This fixture initially made sense at the time of its inception in 2010 as both Kingston and Surrey used to be polytechnics , and a residual bitter rivalry remained left over from this. Further, at the time we were relatively close in sporting stature, so much so that Kingston actually won the first ever Varsity against Surrey. In 2010 however, Surrey also opened the now iconic Surrey Sports Park, and went on to win the next six straight Varsity’s against Kingston. Whilst Surrey were climbing in both academic and sporting prowess, Kingston remained one of the lower ranked universities in both, and so a new Varsity fixture was created - with Royal Holloway.

On paper, Royal Holloway are the logical step up from Kingston. In academic stature and size they are far more comparable to Surrey than Kingston, and similarly to Kingston are only about a half hour drive from Guildford. For me however, Holloway simply aren’t at a comparable level to Surrey for Varsity to be a fair fight.

In my first year I ran in the Cross Country event at Royal Holloway, and the club were lovely - they did their absolute best to put on a great event for us. However, they didn’t have any route made available to them on campus. This meant a trek 20 minutes into the woods off campus, and this instantly resulted in one of the biggest attractions of Varsity - the crowds - being taken away from us both. Then you have the problem of marshalling the actual route to make sure everyone knows the way to go and no one goes off in a random direction. In order to dedicate four or five people to this as the host, Holloway were then left with maybe only five runners to actually run the Cross Country. Surrey however, had around 30-40 members that had come down and run. Not only did we have more runners, we were simply a much more put together club. 15-20 Surrey Stags finished before a single Holloway Bear crossed the line.

That year Cross Country was one of 11 different fixtures Surrey won to nil, leading to an overall crushing victory of 53-29. This is one of three consecutive victories in every Varsity fixture to have taken place between the two universities, all by clear margins in Surrey’s favour. This leaves Surrey as undefeated in Varsity over the last nine years. This should hardly be surprising when Surrey are, and have been for years now, about 30 places above Royal Holloway in the BUCS rankings (30th and 64th respectively as of the end of 2018-19). On top of this we have 64 teams entered into BUCS as opposed to Holloway’s 40, demonstrating how incomparable the two are in sporting stature.

This last year, I was commentating for StagTV’s broadcast and I saw yet another problem. In the Men’s and Women’s Volleyball and Men’s Football fixtures which I watched over, Surrey were the overwhelming favourites in all three . In Volleyball, both teams were in the same league as each other for Men’s and Women’s, with Surrey winning the previous fixtures this year and finishing far higher in the year. Men’s Football were three divisions above their Holloway opponents and, despite a poor season, were overwhelming favourites to win. All three however provided an upset victory through fantastic performances that totally nullified Surrey’s home advantage.

You’d think three major victories like this, three upsets, would surely have a major effect on the scoring overall. Nope. Surrey won 25-11, and this is excluding the events such as Men’s Rugby which Royal Holloway pulled out of very close to the day, which realistically should’ve counted in Surrey’s favour.

My point however, is that if Holloway can exceed expectations, pull off huge upsets in major sports, and still have Surrey win double the events that they do, what is the point? Rivalries cannot live purely on regional similarity alone. The great rivalries in sports, England and Australia in Cricket, Celtic and Rangers in Football, the USA and Jamaica in Athletics, all boil down to a clash over time to determine who is the best. One university wailing on another every year with their superior resources and funding doesn’t make an entertaining rivalry. It keeps both universities sporting programmes stagnant, lacking the reinvigorating spark a proper rivalry would bring to both ourselves and Holloway.

The reality is that no team who would be a similar stature to ours in a sporting nature will be as geographically close as Holloway, and most will already have a standing Varsity fixture. Although there are some universities in the south of England that face a similar situation to our own. Oxford Brookes sit 37th in the BUCS rankings, with 55 teams currently entered, a stark contrast to their Varsity rivals: Reading University, who sit 48th, a full 11 places below Brookes. This has meant that in the eight Varsity fixtures between the two , Brookes have won a whopping six . Despite this, I would suggest Bournemouth University. They sit 23rd in BUCS, and thus would represent a substantial challenge for Surrey, one that I believe would reinvigorate a competitive edge to Varsity. They currently face off against Southampton Solent, who are a shocking 46 places below Bournemouth in 69th. Whilst Bournemouth are an hour and a half drive away, I believe they are still close enough for a formidable rivalry to form.

At the end of the day that is what I believe is best for Surrey - proper competition. Something Royal Holloway unfortunately, simply are not.

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