For the first time in little over a year we will get to see some amateur rugby action again when the Varsity Cup kicks off on Sunday.
Suspended in the sixth round because of the coronavirus pandemic, students had to wait for a long time before they could touch an oval ball with their mates again. But come Sunday, the wait is over when CUT and UJ lock horns at Tuks Stadium.
The tournament takes place in a bio-bubble environment called Varsity Village at the University of Pretoria and will run until May 24.
This year’s Varsity Cup will feature all three of Cape Town’s major universities – Stellenbosch, UCT and UWC.
It’s the men from UWC who get the ball rolling for the Capetonians when they cross swords with former Bulls coach Pote Human’s Shimlas.
The students from Bloemfontein have a young side this year, led by former Junior Springbok scrumhalf Rewan Kruger.
His tussle with UWC’s Conwill Conradie, son of ex-Springbok Bolla, should make for interesting viewing if both are selected.
Another player to watch closely in the UWC team, captained by lock Pieter-Steyl Swanepoel, is former Stormers squad member and centre Lyle Hendricks.
While Shimlas will have an ex-provincial coach in their midst, UDubs have an international mentor in their ranks in Paul Treu.
The former Blitzboks boss and Stormers assistant coach tells the university’s Blue and Gold sports magazine: “I was looking for a different challenge.
“I thought to myself, I played here [at UWC], the team didn’t do so well in the Varsity Cup competition and I haven’t been a head coach in 15s rugby yet.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, and for them to taste success.”
He adds of their goals for the season: “Our immediate goal is to stay within the Varsity Cup.
“This was supposed to be a relegation year but with Covid-19, it’s going to be over two years. So the points accumulated this year and next year will determine who will be relegated.”
As soon as the final whistle is blown in this clash, it’s time for a good-old intervarsity clash between Maties and Ikeys.
Stellies’ Maroon Machine was dominant last term, winning all five of their matches to top the log before Covid-19 struck.
Ikeys, meanwhile, were in fourth place, having won 50 percent of their six matches.
And while there is no form book to go by, Maties will enter this match as favourites.
Coached by Drikus Hancke, Maties have been dominant in this competition in recent years, winning it in 2018 and 2019.
Hancke, though, believes this year’s campaign will be a tight one.
He tells the Varsity Cup website: “I was really proud of the players for winning all five matches last year. But we have a learning culture and there were a lot of lessons to take from those matches.
“Some of the guys who will play again this year would have gained valuable experience and, of course, everyone is hungry to play rugby again. Like everyone, we feel something was taken away from us last year.
“I think this year’s Varsity Cup will be the most tightly contested in a while. There are a lot of good teams who will be well prepared.
“It will be weird not to have fans at the games, but we know they will be watching on TV. We are aiming to win the tournament, but want to take it match by match and keep improving as the tournament progresses.”
Captained by experienced centre David Brits, the Maties team will also feature the likes of Stormers prop Leon Lyons.
On the opposite side of the pitch on Monday, Ikeys coach Tom Dawson-Squibb’s side will be looking to raise a few eyebrows this year.
Captain and flanker Liam Greenhalgh explains: “I think the 2021 tournament in the bio-bubble at Tuks will be the most exciting yet.
“The neutral venues and intense playing format are going to level the playing field completely. The teams will face challenges in terms of Covid protocols, mental health and player management, so I think every single game is going to be an absolute nail-biter.
“From an Ikey Tigers perspective, we are in the best mental and physical condition, so I’m really excited for us to go out there and compete to the best of our ability.”
The table is set for some breathtaking action over the next couple of months. So let the games begin…