After three rounds of jam-packed action, the Varsity Cup is currently on a break.
With the following round of matches scheduled for next week, it’s the tournament’s second tier, the Varsity Shield, that is keeping us entertained until then.
While the flagship division has produced a number of Springboks over the years – 20 to be precise – it’d be unwise to overlook the players playing in the Shield category.
Just ask a certain Mr Herschel Jantjies, who not too long ago represented UWC in this tournament.
With World Cup-winning teammates such as Eben Etzebeth, Damian de Allende (both Ikeys), Bongi Mbonambi and Handre Pollard (both Tuks) among the players who came through Varsity Cup, Jantjies (UWC), Curwin Bosch and Sbu Nkosi (both UKZN) came through the Varsity Shield ranks.
Of winning the Shield under the guidance of then-coach Chester Williams in 2017, Jantjies tells the Varsity Cup website: “It was amazing working with Chester. I learned so much from him. He and [assistant coach] Bolla Conradie threw me a rugby lifeline.
“Playing for UWC was a blessing. Many players in a provincial setup may see it as a downgrade, but for me, it was sort of a blessing in disguise.”
His father, Sammy, adds: “It was really a life-changing opportunity for him.
“He was looking for sufficient game time to show what he has to offer and this is what UWC gave him.”
UWC assistant coach Lionel Langenhoven recalls: “When we recruited Herschel for UWC, the coaches could see he had what it takes to play on the big stage. What really stood out for me was Herschel’s personality and attitude.
“He is mature beyond his years and he truly has the potential to be one of the greats in the sport.”
While it might be varsity rugby’s second-tier competition, the Shield certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Just ask the guys from Durban University of Technology’s Rhinos, who were smashed 136-11 by Walter Sisulu University. Yes, it’s not a typo.
After performing their haka – which I personally feel is just wrong and while they might be thinking it honours a team like the All Blacks, I feel it’s a bit insensitive to the Maori culture – WSU ran wild just like New Zealand did against Japan at the 1995 World Cup. The Kiwis won that game 145-17.
While New Zealand ran in 21 tries on that day, WSU went one better to score 22.
Anyway, as far as Cape representation goes, CPUT got their campaign off to a winning start, beating Fort Hare 36-20.
Winger Nathan Nkutu walked away with the Player That Rocks award, scoring one of his team’s six tries and also setting up captain Butsha Mputa.
Entering the tournament, CPUT coach Alastair Theys said of their expectations for the season: “This year’s tournament is an unknown entity in the sense that you have to play four games in nine days [in the first bubble].
“We’ve also only had 10 weeks [of] preparation time due to the university’s Covid-19 compliance.
“But CPUT are still reigning Varsity Shield champions from 2019 and we want to defend our title.
“How we rotate our squad during the tournament is going to be important and we need to put the best recovery methods in place between games to keep our players fresh.”
Of his squad, he adds: “Covid has hurt the students tremendously as not everyone has the same resources as far as distance-based learning is concerned.
“We had a challenge with some players not achieving the 60 academic credits they need to play in the Varsity Shield, while others couldn’t afford to continue studying.
“And, of course, there were also players who graduated.
“We’ve only retained 50 percent of our squad from last year, but the good thing is that a significant portion of them are experienced third-year players.
“So we have a good senior group who are helping the youngsters.”
With a point to prove and dreams to realise, the 2019 Shield winners will look to continue their winning start to the campaign when they face Rhodes at Tuks Stadium tomorrow at 3pm.
Varsity Shield fixtures
Rhodes v CPUT (3pm)
UFH v TUT (5pm)
WSU v UKZN (7pm)
DUT v CPUT (3pm)
TUT v UKZN (5pm)
UFH v WSU (7pm)