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NYT: Oxford and Tradition Take on a New Meaning

Pictured: Will Johnson, right-center
Courtesy, JOSHUA ROBINSON, NYT

By the time the phone rang at 5:30 one morning two years ago, Will Johnson was already intimately acquainted with tradition in college sports. He had stood proud at Harvard Stadium and battled the enemy in the Yale Bowl. He had played in The Game.

But the voice Johnson heard through his sleepy haze was telling him that he still had plenty to learn about tradition.

Johnson was being offered the chance to play in an older rivalry, one between universities that make Harvard and Yale look like expansion teams: Oxford and Cambridge. He could not turn it down, even if it meant moving to a country he hardly knew and playing a sport he had only just met.

On Thursday, Johnson will pull on his navy blue Oxford rugby jersey to face Cambridge in the Varsity Match, which stands alongside the Boat Race in the universities' annual tussle for bragging rights. He called it a one-game season.

"Each team will spend 364 days preparing for that one game," Oxford's rugby coach, Steve Hill, said by telephone. "No matter how well you've done leading up to it, the season is a success or a failure based on that one day. At the end of that day, you're either in heaven or you're in hell. There's nowhere in between."

The tradition began in 1872 when Oxford took on a pink-clad Cambridge side, three years before Harvard first faced Yale on a football field. Since then, the two universities have met another 126 times, with Cambridge leading the series, 60-53, with 14 ties.

"The thing about both games is that they really embody the spirit of scholar-athletes," said Johnson, who is enrolled in a two-year master's program in economic and social history.

He will become the latest on a short list of Americans who have played in the Varsity Match, or have "earned a Blue."

Cambridge has an American of its own in Doug Rowe, who also started last year's Varsity Match at scrum half, though he never played football. Rowe, 33, was born in New York to British parents and earned two caps for the United States national team in 2005.

Johnson, a former offensive lineman, had never thought he would play the game until after he graduated from Harvard in 2006 and struck out on a series of N.F.L. tryouts; he was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots. He picked up rugby on a lark while working in San Francisco.

Soon, he was playing regularly for a local club as a 6-foot-3, 270-pound tight head prop and impressing a local coach named Ray Lehner, who happened to have played for Oxford. In exchange for Johnson's services in a national tournament, Lehner offered to put him in touch with Hill at Oxford.

Then came the wake-up call, and the wheels were in motion. He improved so quickly that the American rugby community has taken notice. He helped the Eagles, the American national rugby team, qualify for the World Cup, and has been the subject of a profile in Rugby magazine.

Many of the skills in football and rugby overlap, which, Johnson said, helped him master some of the more subtle elements of scrummaging. Other skills he had to develop on his own since they were never part of his job on the offensive line. "You do get to catch and carry the ball," he said, "which is really exciting after not touching one for four years."

One American Hill has failed to recruit is Myron Rolle, the former Florida State safety who is studying at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Still, after three seasons of Atlantic Coast Conference football, Rolle can appreciate a good college grudge match.

"I'd say it's a little more civil than the Florida-Florida State rivalry," Rolle said. "But there are definitely some feelings, some hard feelings, toward that other university in athletics."

Rolle was particularly surprised by the mass e-mailings and fliers circulating among the student body urging the men to wear their school blazers and the women to wear dresses to come out and support the Blues. But the dress code is only the beginning of the fixture's urbane traditions. Rugby, after all, is known in England as a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.

Oxford and Cambridge will meet in front of over 30,000 fans at Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby. And once they have spent 80 minutes running each other into the mud, the squads will meet for dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on London's Pall Mall.

That is the way it has been for decades. That is the way it will be Thursday. And it is certainly the way Pete Dawkins remembered it when he wrote himself into Varsity Match lore.

After winning the 1958 Heisman Trophy at Army, Dawkins traveled to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. When he arrived having never seen a rugby match, his fellow students at Brasenose College immediately insisted he try it. At 6-3, 210 pounds, he was bigger than most rugby players and clearly a gifted athlete.

"They spent a lot of time separate from the normal practices really drilling me and teaching me the game," Dawkins said.

Within two months, Dawkins earned his first Blue. And for Oxford, the time invested in teaching him the basics of tries, scrums and conversions paid quick dividends. In his first Varsity Match, in 1959, Dawkins scored the winning try to snatch the title back from the Country Boys, as they are known, at Cambridge.

He played again in 1960 and 1961 as he completed a three-year program in politics, philosophy and economics. Dawkins said he could not recall many specific plays from his brief rugby career, but rugby definitely recalls his contribution.

In 1960 he invented the overhand delivery on lineouts, which are used to put the ball back into play from the sideline. Since then it has become the standard from schoolboys to the international level.

But at the time it was a gadget play known as the Yankee torpedo pass. It means that whether or not Americans play in the Varsity Match, their influence is woven in the fiber of a distinctly English sporting tradition.