“I recall Wayne Bennett [rugby league coach] saying it was better to retire a year early than a year late,” Horwill says. “There were more and more niggles and it was all getting a bit frustrating. I’d put my degree on hold in Australia before taking it back up at the University of Hertfordshire when I came to Harlequins [in 2015].

“It’s a funny time of life for a sportsman, nearing the end, and it’s not always easy to know what to do. We all thought Dan [Vickerman] had found the right balance when he took the decision to come to Cambridge to study [land economy] when he was only in his late twenties and in his prime. He captained the Light Blues twice, leading them to victory in 2009. Tony Rodgers [a veteran former Cambridge Blue and coach] reckons Dan was the best captain he’d come across. We locked down alongside each other in the 2011 World Cup. But who knows what really goes on in people’s minds?

“If nothing else, there is much greater awareness these days of mental health, a sense that it is OK to not be OK. Rugby is such a macho sport, where winning that physical confrontation is key, that it’s hard to admit to any weaknesses. There is no cookie-cutter solution.

“Coming here to study helps get your rugby in perspective. We’ll all be doing our utmost to beat that lot from ‘the other place’ at Twickenham next Thursday, but my priorities have changed. It was a great honour for me to receive the scholarship from Dan’s widow, Sarah, alongside their two boys.”

There was a time when both universities would pursue talent such as Horwill in order to boost their chances in the Varsity Match. These days it is brain, not brawn, that matters. There are no favours in the admission process. Horwill found himself summoned to an interview the day before his last game of the regular season for Harlequins in early May.

“I drove up to Cambridge while the rest of the Quins boys headed to the hotel ahead of playing Wasps the next day at the Ricoh,” Horwill says. “It was a bittersweet weekend. We lost, so just failed to make the play-offs, but I learned I’d been accepted on to the course.”

Horwill will be doing work placement at the Milton Keynes-based branch of his family’s automotive accessories company in the new year, following his first Christmas back home in Queensland in five years. Horwill, an astute as well as hard-nosed forward who captained the Wallabies at the World Cup in New Zealand and against the Lions in Australia two years later, had no designs on a post-playing career in the game, despite serving under pre-eminent coaches Eddie Jones, Robbie Deans and Michael Cheika.

“Coaching is such a demanding and fickle part of the business,” he says. “I’m really engaged with what I’m doing and you meet such a diverse group of people here. It’s been stimulating playing as well. The banter among such an uber-intelligent lot is pretty interesting. Training is in the evening and Saturday mornings, with matches on a Wednesday. I’m back as just one of the team, an amateur for the first time in years. It’s been a bit strange after years of every game really counting to have it all focused on this one match. That’s all that matters. Like all the boys, I’ll be giving it all I’ve got.”

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With that, he is off, pedalling his bike through town like any other student, rounded and grounded in equal measure.



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