History of the II-IVs Varsity Matches
The proposal for a second team race came from Graham Taylor (St. John’s, Cambridge) in the Lent term of 1937. Approval was given by the Cambridge committee, and it was originally hoped to hold a race, subject to Oxford’s acquiesce, in that term. However, the first race had to wait until the following December, when it was held on Wednesday 1st December 1937, three days before the Blues’ contest. Cambridge won by 34 points to 44 with Richard Crossley-Holland (Jesus) and Ronald Martin (Sidney Sussex) finishing joint first.
The race – later to be known as the Tortoises-Spartans match, after the respective names of the two teams – was to become an important precursor to the first team contest and the initial step in the development of the Second-to-Fifth (now Second-to-Fourth) Teams’ Races, which have always been held on the preceding Saturday. For many runners, it was to become an important stepping-stone to Blues recognition.
Cambridge, after much discussion at the 1937 CUH&H Annual General Meeting, created the Cambridge University Spartan Club with the aim to encourage lesser runners with the opportunity to represent the University in a Varsity Match. Oxford were slower to react in the naming of their team and ran the first three races (1937, 1938 and 1946) as the ‘Oxford University 2nds’. However, in the summer of 1947, permission was given by OUAC and the Blues Committees to establish the Tortoise Club to play a similar role to the Centipedes in athletics.
“O.U. Tortoise Club
The Committee decided that a special Cross-Country Club should be formed on the lines of the Centipede Club, and that it should be called the “Tortoise Club”. Permission to form this club, and to wear its distinctive colours (blue, brown and dark green) was asked for and granted at a Blues’ Committee Meeting”
Although many other clubs has developed seconds teams by this point, cross-country was one of the first sports to take it a step further and stage a second team contest. Rugby’s Greyhounds-LX Club match did not commence until 1945, athletics Centipedes-Alverstone not until 1949 and rowing’s Isis-Goldie not until 1965.
The introduction of the second team match in 1937 was so successful and served to increase the depth of the cross-country talent at both universities that in 1951, the decision was taken to establish a third team race. From the start, it was held in conjunction with the Tortoises-Spartans match on the Saturday before the main event. The first individual winner was Robert Smith (Balliol) with Oxford also taking home the overall win on the first four occasions.
Although this now meant there were now 24 places on offer in the annual Oxbridge contest, many runners at both clubs still did not graduate to that status. As a result, within the ensuing decades, a fourth team race was established in 1958 and a fifth team in 1966.
Following the example of the second teams, the third teams were given their own names: the Oxford University Snails (in the 1980s) and the Cambridge University Barbarians (in 1997). The Snails was the name originally given to the fourth and fifth teams by the then self-appointed "Captain of Snails", Keith Creates (St. John's) in 1976. Keith was already a Junior Officer in the Royal Navy and a natural leader of men. Calling the fourth and fifth teams 'The Snails' was designed as a motivational tool and one that was clearly appreciated as it was four years later adopted by the third team.
Following the establishment of the Ladies’ Race in 1975, it was inevitable that sooner or later non-Blues races for this side of the clubs would emerge. The first step came in 1983 when a second team race for the ladies was held alongside the men’s races at Shotover. Four years later, a third team contest was added. Given what happened in the men’s races, it was no surprise when names were given to the ladies’ second teams with the Turtles for Oxford and the Cheetahs for Cambridge. In 2004, Cambridge names its third team the Gazelles, but Oxford’s remains, as yet, without a sobriquet.
The creation of Mob Match from selected teams
In 1997, a new piece of silverware emerged in the form of the ‘Varsity Club Challenge’ for the overall winner based on number of victories across all races (now including the Blues’ races). For many years the Gentlemen’s fourth and fifth team and the Ladies’ second and third team races were each run together as one; however, in 2006, a decision was taken to combine the Gentlemen’s Race into a single mob match and to separate out the Ladies’ second and third team races, with the latter also becoming a mob match.
Adapted from Simon Molden's Hares, Hounds and Blues: A History of the University Cross-Country Race, 1880-2019 [Second Edition] (2020)