Catling joins illustrious Varsity roll of honour
December 12, 2008
Ronald Poulton pictured while captaining Oxford University against Richmond in 1911. © Getty Images
There is always talk of traditions when the Varsity match comes round. This year Oxford wing Tim Catling revived one that looked to have fallen into complete disuse - scoring hat-tricks.
His superbly executed first-half scores made him only the 10th man in 127 matches over 136 years to claim a Varsity hat-trick, the first since Cambridge's Ken Fyfe in 1934. Remarkably all but one of the earlier hat-tricks was scored in a 23-match period between 1907 and 1934.
Like all of his predecessors Catling is a winger. All but one of them had something else in common - they played international rugby, while the exception had perhaps the most colourful career of all of them. All of course played in a time when the Varsity match had a very different part in the game's eco-system, a finishing school for a high proportion of the game's most talented players and de facto trial for the international matches starting early the following month.
Four of the previous hat-tricksters had already played international rugby, while three won their first caps a few weeks after their eye-catching efforts in the Varsity match. Hugh Martin, a Scotsman who played for Oxford and the only man with two Varsity hat-tricks, comes into both categories - making his debut directly after his 1907 trio, the first since 1883, then adding four more in 1909.
That Martin is largely forgotten, earning only a single reference in the fixture's most recent history, is down to the man on the other wing for Oxford on his second day of triumph. Of Catling's nine predecessors, Ronald Poulton is one of the two who crossed the line from good to great. Cambridge certainly wouldn't have debated the description in 1909 as Poulton (who added Palmer to his name in 1914 after becoming heir to the Huntley and Palmer biscuit fortune) crossed five times. That match tops even this year's - when both teams came close to breaking their all-time scoring records - as a statistical oddity.
Nobody else has ever scored more than three tries in those 127 matches. Unsurprisingly Oxford, with five tries on one wing and four on the other, also set a team scoring record which survives, just, to this day, winning 35-3 (under today's values 53-3).
Poulton was already an England player but, although in his second year at Oxford, only winning his first blue. The previous year's captain had left him out, feeling that the unpredictability that had one bemused Welsh opponent asking, "How can one stop him when his head goes one way, his arms another and his legs keep straight on?", was even more of a problem for team-mates. Poulton's memory lives on as the sporting epitome of the 'lost generation' killed in the First World War, a fate shared by another Oxford hat-trickster, Welsh wing Billy Geen, dead less than five years after scoring three tries in the 1910 match.
Oxford clearly had exceptional players in this period, but it may be no coincidence that their extraordinary burst of scoring - four hat-tricks in four matches, compared to three in the other 123 - came after they introduced a specialist scrum-half and outside-half in 1907.
The other true giant was the scorer of the first Varsity hat-trick in 1883. Oxford's Charles Wade, an Australian, had already played and scored a hat-trick for England, scored six tries in all (a record that stood until it was overtaken by Will Greenwood) against Wales and was unbeaten in big matches until returning home for a legal-political career that saw him become Premier of New South Wales.
Fyfe was the other established international. His hat-trick in Cambridge's 29-4 win in 1934 has been overshadowed in memory by Wilfred Wooller's giant second-half drop-goal. Still, it was noticed by the Scotland selectors, who promptly made him captain for that season and the Home Unions, who sent him to Argentina the following year as leader of a touring party.
There was an immediate reward in the shape of a first England cap for Bob Smeddle after scoring a hat-trick for Cambridge in 1928. Three years earlier Sir Timothy Devitt, notable not only as a rugby-playing baronet but a delicate, swerving runner whose 1925 hat-trick followed a single score in 1923 and two the following season, had to wait until England's second match for his debut - the reward of an immediate first cap going instead to his centre, Tom Francis.
Devitt's selection meant a switch of wings for Henry Hamilton-Wickes, who had started Cambridge's own hat-trick rush - four in 12 years, all the Cambridge hat-tricks in the long history of the fixture - in 1922, but in a period of English prosperity had had to wait until the following season for his cap.
All of which leaves the man who did not make it - in rugby at least. Bernard Jacot, scorer of an Oxford hat-trick in 1920, was in spite of his French name a product of King Edward School, Birmingham.
He had the distinctions of getting wounded in both World Wars - he is recorded as wearing padded bandages around his head to protect his first World War injuries - winning a first-class degree in Law and swimming in the 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics. Oxford's centenary history recorded him in 1969 as having changed his name to Jacot de Boinod and working as a writer in the USA.
All of which gives Tim Catling something to live up to - although his skill in Oriental Languages suggests he is likelier to emulate, geographically at least, Martin who spent decades as a merchant in Shanghai before being expelled after the Communist takeover.
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland
"This team deserves to be recognised as the greatest of all time." Huw Richards looks at Gareth Edwards' final match for Wales
The two leading contenders for the best modern open-side flanker go head to head in Paris on Saturday. John Taylor assesses the tale of the tape