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James Horwill is poignantly trying to emulate his late friend Dan Vickerman by winning the Varsity

By Chris Jones
James Horwill finished up his professional career by playing for the Barbarians last June (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Barbarians)

Former Wallaby captain James Horwill will be in the Cambridge University second row against Oxford University in the 138th Varsity match next week, a contest that marks the tenth anniversary of the late Dan Vickerman leading the light blues to victory in the famous fixture.


Horwill and Vickerman were Australia’s second row partnership at the 2011 World Cup, but Vickerman was forced to retire due to leg fracture problems a year later. 

Vickerman, who played in the 2008 and 2009 varsity matches, tragically committed suicide in 2017, highlighting how many sportsmen and women struggle once their playing careers are over.

The Daniel Vickerman scholarship was established in the late lock’s memory and Horwill, studying a 20-month EMBA course at Cambridge, become its second recipient, an honour presented by his former team-mate’s wife Sarah and her two sons.

It was a particularly poignant moment as Vickerman was the person who inspired Horwill about taking a course at Cambridge once his professional playing career ended. That moment came at Twickenham in June when he scored a try as Barbarians captain against England. 

(Continue reading below…)

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Horwill, who now returns to Twickenham on December 12 as an amateur, told RugbyPass: “I watched last year’s game, the one in which Jamie Roberts (his former Harlequins team-mate) was involved, and I had spoken at length to Dan Vickerman about his experience here (at Cambridge). The aim is to get the win ten years after Dan led Cambridge to victory.

“I’m lucky enough to be the second recipient of the scholarship. The first was Andrew Hunter a young Sydney University lock who came over and did his undergraduate degree and played for the club. 

“When Dan initially moved to Australia he played for my club Queensland Uni and we played together for the Wallabies. He put the seed in my head about doing some kind of study post my rugby career. 


“We talked together at the 2011 World Cup and the scholarship is something I’m very humbled to receive. To have Sarah and the kids here to present it was very special.

“The Rugby Players Association are helping players because it isn’t an easy transition, whether you are prepared or not. When you look at someone like Dan from the outside, he probably looked best prepared having taken time out to study at Cambridge to prepare for life after rugby and he still had issues.

“It’s about understanding that it is OK not to be OK and to talk about it. People are there to help and you should be thinking about this if you are 18 and just starting out or past 30 like I was and looking at options. The world of professional sport can be a fickle one and a short one. At times you don’t always decide when you finish and it is great we are bringing awareness of this fact.”

Horwill will pack down alongside former Springbok Flip van der Merwe – also 34 – in what could be the most experienced second row partnership to ever appear in a Varsity match as the players boast 99 Test caps between them.

Horwill, who captained the Wallabies 16 times in his 14-year professional career that ended at Harlequins, is currently juggling his studies with the build-up to the Varsity match and the length of this course means he could also play in 2020 alongside Schalk Brits, the Springbok World Cup-winning hooker, who is expected to start his business course next September. 

“It’s pretty busy because there is a lot that goes into it off the field,” explained Horwill. “There are events and functions plus training and I knew it would be like this and you have to make it work.

“What makes this game unique is the history of the match and some of the guys have been training for a year to play in it again. It is fast-paced and it will be about peaking at the right time.

“Our captain Stephen Leonard has done a great job and I talk when I feel that I can add value. I’m alongside Flip in the second row and we definitely feel older than everyone else which is interesting. It’s nice to have someone in the same boat!

“My course is challenging and designed to push you. It lasts 20 months and will still be running when the 2020 match takes place, but let’s get through this one first.”

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