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08 June 2021 | in NUSF News

Tuks reign supreme in South Africa’s Varsity Cup

Two months of scintillating university rugby culminated in a show-stopping grand finale of this year’s Varsity Cup rugby tournament in South Africa, completing another successful season of the increasingly popular competition.

 

The prestigious annual tournament, which sees eight of the country’s top university teams battling it out for South Africa’s ultimate university rugby prize, may have had a different look and feel to it this year, but nonetheless united – although virtually – South African university sport, ensuring a much-needed sporting reprieve amid the challenges brought about by the global pandemic.

With the 2020 Varsity Cup suspended after six rounds of fixtures due to the escalating Coronavirus situation last year, strict measures were put in the place to ensure this year’s tournament could be hosted and enjoyed in a safe environment for all participants.

 

Taking place across April and May in three bio-secure bubbles based in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria, the competition was evenly spaced out, with three sets of fixtures played within each week-long bubble. With teams accommodated in the Varsity Cup Village at the University of Pretoria, all fixtures were played on three rugby fields surrounding the facility, with strict sanitation measures, regular testing and screening, as well as strict time allocations for use of dining areas, training and gym facilities as well as study areas adhered to.

 

Despite being played behind closed doors, fan engagement across social media, major sponsorship backing as well as televised games of every fixture ensured the tournament continued its impressive growth in showcasing the best young rugby talent on offer.

 

There was action from the get-go in the first round of fixtures played at the start of April, where the University of Cape Town laid down a marker by edging their ever-impressive provincial neighbours University of Stellenbosch – winners of the last two editions of the tournament – 26-20.

 

It turned out to be a statement of intent from Ikeys, as the University of Cape Town (UCT) is fondly known, who would go unbeaten across the group stages of the tournament, registering eight wins and a draw to top the table for the first time since 2008 – the very first edition of the tournament.

 

Joining them at the top end of the table was reigning champions University of Stellenbosch – nicknamed Maties – who lost just two of their name games en route to second place on the log, which included a merciless 81-24 victory over University of the Free State in their final group stage fixture.

 

Rounding off the top four was University of Pretoria – affectionately known as Tuks – who secured six wins and a draw in their nine matches to finish third, four points ahead of North West University (NWU) who qualified for the remaining semi-final berth.

 

In the last four of the competition, where an innovative Smart Ball was used which revealed impressive tracking data and gave television audiences insightful analytical information, a clash of the titans saw the tournament’s two most successful sides Maties and Tuks involved in a thrilling affair as the latter emerged 44-35 winners, denying their Stellenbosch opponents an opportunity to contend for a record-extending sixth Varsity Cup crown. In the second semi-final, UCT overpowered NWU 54-36, continuing their impressive unbeaten run in the tournament and setting up a final showdown against Tuks, a repeat of the 2011 final which UCT won 26-16.

 

The duo were yet to face each other in this year’s competition, with three positive COVID-19 cases in the University of Pretoria camp meaning their scheduled group stage fixture was declared a draw. Yet it was the underdog Tuks team that began the highly-anticipated final, which took place on Monday, 31 May, on the front foot, taking just five minutes to score the opening try before racing to an impressive 31-10 half-time lead.

The unbeaten Ikeys team rallied in the second half however, scoring two unanswered tries to reduce the deficit to 12 points as they looked to cap off a fairy-tale season. Yet a Tuks penalty three minutes before the hooter put the game out of reach, as the Pretoria-based team ended as eventual 34-27 victors, lifting their fourth Varsity Cup trophy following their previous victories in 2012, 2013 and 2017.

 

"I love it when a plan comes together," said Tuks coach Nico Luus after the final whistle. "The win is undoubtedly one of the gutsiest in the history of Tuks rugby. The players never gave up. They fought to the last minute to ensure victory. That is what makes coaching worthwhile.

 

The team captain Sango Xamlashe shared his sense of both relief and disbelief after leading his side to victory.

 

“It was a hard and long journey for the team," he said. "It all added up to the final. I could not be more grateful to win. It is my first Varsity Cup victory. I don't think what we've achieved has sunk in yet."

 

With cash prizes on offer for the Player of the Match after every fixture, there were also well-earned incentives for stand-out performers at the culmination of the tournament from the event sponsors which saw Cape University of Technology full-back Cohen Jasper named Player of the Tournament, as he drove away in a brand new Toyota Urban Cruiser.

 

The Forward of the Tournament award was handed to University of the Western Cape’s Tinotenda Mavesere, while University of Stellenbosch’s Munier Hartzenberg won the Back of the Tournament award. 

 

The competition also saw some of the country’s professional rugby teams handpick some of the outstanding players who shone on the national university stage, with Jasper joining the Free State Cheetahs in their prestigious national Currie Cup side, while Tuks full-back Zander du Plessis, who surpassed the 150-point mark in the final to set a new tournament points tally record, will join top-tier club Griquas.

 

And while this duo, among others, have their sporting futures in place, tournament-winning captain Xamlashe has not forgotten his responsibilities as a student-athlete.

 

“I’m going to finish my studies now this semester, any options that come forth now with regards to my career I’m willing to take with both hands,” he told thesouthafrica.com. “I’m just happy at this point and ready to take the next step in my career and challenge myself so that I can get better. I don’t think I should stop here.”

 

In other university rugby action from South Africa, the second-tier Varsity Shield tournament was won in thrilling fashion last month, as Cape University of Technology successfully defended their title in dramatic fashion with an extra-time 30-26 victory over Walter Sisulu University.

 

All images courtesy of Varsity Cup Facebook page.