Cambridge University head coach Andy Key has turned this year’s Varsity Match into the equivalent of a Heineken Cup final for his players as they seek to end a run of three successive Oxford victories at Twickenham today (kick-off 2pm).
Key knows about preparing for major finals from his 15 years on the coaching staff at Welford Road. He helped develop players who reached four Heineken Cup finals, six Pilkington and Anglo-Welsh Cup finals and won three Premiership league titles and two Premiership play-off titles.
Twickenham became a second home to him during that time, but this will be as new to him as it will be to the 10 non-Blues in Will Briggs starting line-up.
“I’ve listened to players, coaches, and everyone around because from my perspective I needed to know what it means.
“I know what a Heineken Cup or Premiership final means because I have been there before and won them, but this is something different,” admitted Key.
“You get given this game rather than earning the right to be there. That’s why we have set out our stall this season in such a way that when we get there we will feel like we have earned the right to be there.
“It’s the players’ Heineken Cup final whether they like it or not and it’s all about the approach now. I have been impressed with the way they have stood up to what we have thrown at them. That’s been the challenge and they have taken to it well.”
Leicester reached the Heineken Cup finals in 1996, 2001, 2002 and 2007 during Key’s time at the club. They became the first time to win back-to-back European title in 2001 nd 2002, but lost on the other occasions, the final one to London Wasps at Twickenham six years ago.
“I can tell you it’s heart breaking to lose a game like that. You think you’ve done everything right, but even when you have done your homework there are things you can’t pick up,” said Key.
“But I have also experienced the good times and they are the emotions I want my players to feel.“
After working with some of the greats of the modern era at Leicester Key is eager to bring a similar attitude to Cambridge. He understands the majority of the players are academics first and rugby players second, but insists that should not stop them going about things in the right way.
“Behaving like a professional costs nothing, it’s about your ability to do the right things at the right time and that’s what we have asked of the guys here. They have a responsibility to themselves and to Cambridge University,” added Key.
“There are a lot of things that are similar to what goes on in a professional environment and they understand that. I know the Oxford coach James Wade very well from his time as Sale academy manager and he will bring an edge to their game from his professional background.
“We are all trying to put structures in place that will make both sides’ better rugby teams in the future.”