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Annual university rugby event shines again

19 May 2023

Two months of what can only be described as a festival of university rugby drew to a thrilling close on Monday, 17 April in the nail-biting final of this year’s Varsity Cup.

The annual rugby tournament, pitting eight of South Africa’s best university rugby teams against each other, has been a highlight on the local university calendar for over a decade. This year’s competition exceeded the mark once more with a plethora of fanfare, prizes, entertainment, and scintillating rugby.

With tournament sponsors including a national bank, a popular burger franchise, and an international automobile company, along with with live television coverage of the Monday night matchups, the 2023 Varsity Cup was able to mark even more milestones. This included a first-ever women’s rugby event as well as a university cheer-leading competition running alongside the men’s matches, and also the U-20 Young Guns division and the second-tier Varsity Shield event.

Back to matters on the pitch – it all kicked off in Round 1 on February 20, where the North West University (NWU) Eagles turned heads from the off, scoring over 40 points in four of their seven group stage matches while suffering just one defeat as they stormed to the top of the standings. Six points behind in second place sat University of the Free State (UFS) with five wins and two losses, with University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University rounding off the top four to seal their semi-final spots. Meanwhile, reigning champions University of Pretoria had a season to forget, failing to register a single victory as they were relegated to the Varsity Shield for the first time in their history.

The semi-finals produced some riveting rugby as two-time champions UCT demolished UFS 65-30 in their back yard. It was a much tighter affair in the second semi-final as NWU built on their 7-3 half-time lead to see out perennial powerhouse Stellenbosch 19-10 to secure their passage to the final.

NWU, in their first final since their only tournament victory in 2016, had both home ground advantage and the mental edge, having overcome UCT 42-26 in the second-to-last Group Stage fixture just three weeks prior. In front of a sell-out home crowd at the Fanie du Toit Sports Ground in Potchefstroom, it looked like it would be an easy repeat of that round robin win for NWU, whose three first-half tries gave them a healthy 20-9 lead heading into the interval.

Yet UCT refused to throw in the towel, mounting an impressive comeback early in the second stanza to leave the score 20-18 with 35 minutes left to play. Semi-final Player of the Match Tino Swanepoel then dotted over the tryline to increase the host’s lead to nine points, and despite UCT’s late surge, the UWC Eagles held on for a narrow 27-25 win to lift this year’s prized Varsity Cup trophy.

In the inaugural Women’s Varsity Cup competition, Stellenbosch University were a cut above the rest, comfortably beating University of Johannesburg 63-9 to ensure their names were the first etched on the brand-new trophy. In the Young Guns competition, the North West University’s U-20 side replicated the senior men side’s feat, edging Stellenbosch University 27-26 to claim tournament gold.

In the second tier Varsity Shield competition, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) went unbeaten on their way to final victory and automatic promotion to next year’s Varsity Cup, winning the Cape derby final against Cape Peninsula University of Technology 24-18.

The inaugural ‘Cheerleaders that Rock’ competition involving cheerleading squads from all 16 teams in both the Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield kept fans entertained, with the University of Cape Town voted overall winners ahead of UWC and the University of Pretoria.

Enthralling action, opportunities for both men, women, and up-and-coming stars, and pitchside entertainment to boot, Varsity Cup 2023 had it all!

fabio de dominicis