Kate vs William: The rivalry that’s key to their union

If you want an insight into one of the most famous couples in the country, you might like to fix a keen eye on the VIP box at Twickenham when the Six Nations begins. Better still, try to get an invite on Feb 26, when a brand new royal patronage could be about to turn up the dial on a decades-old sporting rivalry. No, not that between England and Wales, but the one involving the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

The Duchess is expected to become patron of English Rugby, taking on the role from her brother-in-law the Duke of Sussex (who relinquished his patronages last year, after stepping down as a working royal). Reports suggest that she is being ushered through “imminently” in order to be in position as the figurehead in time for the start of the tournament. She is, according to insiders, also about to be announced as the new patron of the Rugby Football League. It’s a perfect appointment for Kate, who comes from a famously rugby mad family (her sister Pippa once spoke of how, growing up, the Middleton clan used to “plan our weekends” around the big matches) and has often been seen in the stands at Twickenham. 

But it also adds further fuel to the friendly sporting rivalry with her husband – who is patron of Welsh Rugby – which, over the years, has been the stuff of royal photographers’ dreams. 

From a dragon boat race in Heidelberg to a Swedish ice hockey pitch, from a regatta off the Isle of Wight to a wind-buggy race on a blustery St Andrew’s beach, there are too many pictures of the Cambridges battling it out to fit on this page. 

No royal tour, it seems, is complete without a quick game of cricket or a spot of archery, with the Palace seeming to leap on any opportunity to pit the couple against each other in a pair of trainers. There is endless footage of the pair joshing at the start lines of running tracks or attempting to defeat one another on the high seas, wind in their hair (well, hers, anyway), a look of equally grim determination on both their faces. 

Prince William and Kate Middleton hug after a dragon boat race, once the small matter of competing against one another is over Credit: Macpherson/Gillis/Splash News

It’s by no means all for show. The Cambridges, say those close to them, really are as gladiatorial as they seem. “William and Kate have a natural competitiveness and it never takes much to bring it out,” according to one former palace aide. 

“Kate is a natural athlete, good at all sports, you only have to put a racket in her hand or ask her to play hockey or cricket and she’d do it. She really gets into it.” 

Her husband, meanwhile, doesn’t need any encouragement to go head-to-head with his wife. “It’s all genuine and never contrived,” adds the source.

Kate and William, Cambridges Kate’s competitive spirit got the better of her at the King’s Cup regatta, leading to the presentation of the wooden spoon Credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage

Kate’s boatmates in Heidelberg must have feared they’d let the future queen down, then, when William finished a length ahead in 2017. “No pressure”, the Duchess had told them before they set off, “but I do want to beat my husband.”

And it must have been a tense car ride home from the King’s Cup regatta race in 2019 after the Duchess was presented with the wooden spoon after being disqualified for a false start and roundly beaten by everyone, including her husband. Her defeat was made worse, one imagines, by the fact that Prince George and Princess Charlotte were in the crowd watching. Nothing says marital dispute quite like Dad winning a race against Mum. Though, in fairness, William had only been trying to even out the score, after Kate beat him in a yacht race in Auckland five years earlier. 

One area in which the Duchess, who turned 40 this month, can be more certain of trumping her husband is on the tennis court. The couple told Rod Laver in the Royal Box at Wimbledon that, when they play each other, the games always tend to go one way. “William told me he couldn’t beat her,” revealed the former number one. The future king shouldn’t be too hard on himself – Emma Raducanu did pronounce the Duchess’s forehand to be “incredible” when they had a knock around last summer. 

Kate and William The Palace seems to leap on any opportunity to pit the couple against each other Credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

It’s no accident that this image of the competitive Cambridges has built up over the years. 

The Duchess’s sporting talents were spotted early on when she was taking her first steps into the limelight; many of those fledgling royal engagements were arranged around her natural athleticism. It was the perfect solution for a woman who is naturally shy and wasn’t immediately comfortable having to perform on the public stage – a way to help her feel more confident on an official visit. 

Quickly, the Palace realised the natural rivalry between the Duchess and her new husband happened to make for fantastic photo opportunities. 

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The Telegraph’s columnist Bryony Gordon saw the Cambridges’ rivalry up close when, in 2017, she competed in a relay race with the couple and the Duke of Sussex. 

“Prince William had to pass his baton to me and the Duchess got to give the baton to Paula Radcliffe, so it was never really a fair race,” she recalls. 

“You could tell they were really sporty and serious about it. When I saw them coming towards me, their faces were fierce with determination, whereas Harry just seemed to find it all a bit of a laugh.” 

William and Kate hurling ‘Kate is a natural athlete, good at all sports, you only have to put a racket in her hand or ask her to play hockey or cricket’ – or in this instance hurling – ‘and she’d do it’ Credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The Duchess’s athleticism goes right back to her school days when she was captain of the tennis team and excelled at hockey, netball and swimming. “By the time she left school, she could do practically any sport there was,” says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. 

“She’s very athletic – much more than William. He is a very good swimmer like his mum, a rider, and he played football and water polo. 

“The only thing she doesn’t do is get involved with horses.” 

It’s worth noting, too, that the couple’s competitive spirit extends beyond the sports field. On a trip to Barry Island in 2020, they battled it out at the arcade made famous by Nessa in Gavin and Stacey, where onlookers noted the couple seemed absolutely determined to trounce one another and win big on “the claw”. 

Even Barry Island was the site of some friendly competition Even Barry Island was the site of some friendly competition Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

They are said to be arch rivals in the kitchen, too, though Mary Berry knew better than to pick a winner when she was faced with the task of judging the Cambridge’s meringue roulades one Christmas. 

Diplomatically, she declared both creations to be delicious. It’s a nice gesture, but I’m not sure it’ll pass muster with Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac on Feb 26. Kensington Palace might want to arrange separate transportation back from Twickenham.

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