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23 April 2019 | in NUSF News, Rugby

University Rugby in South Africa: Maties claim fifth Varsity Cup crown

The University of Stellenbosch solidified themselves as the powerhouse of South African university rugby after winning their fifth Varsity Cup trophy at the prestigious annual tournament.


Played every year since 2008, the Varsity Cup involves nine of South Africa’s best rugby-playing universities, who battle it out for top honours over a two-month period to see who will be crowned as the country’s top rugby university.


Supported by exuberant fans, the well-sponsored tournament receives national television coverage with a high level of scintillating rugby on show every Monday evening, with this year’s final once again providing the packed Danie Craven Stadium crowd with 80 minutes of edge-of-the-seat action.


University of Stellenbosch – nicknamed ‘Maties’ – were the defending champions, and touted as favourites once again this year after demolishing all in their path, going unbeaten across all eight of their group-stage games – which included a resounding 84-26 win over the University of the Western Cape – before thrashing the University of the Free State 47-5 in the semi-finals to book themselves a home final.


In their way stood their nemesis opponents University of Pretoria – nicknamed Tuks – who had beaten them in the 2017 final. Tuks – the second-best team in the tournament’s history with three victories – had finished second on the table after the group stages, recording six wins, one draw and one loss – their only defeat was a narrow 26-24 loss to Maties.


In the last four, Tuks beat North-West University 24-18, setting up a repeat of the final two years ago against Maties, who last year won their fourth Varsity Cup crown. A victory would therefore put Tuks level with their final opponents in overall tournament victories, yet they faced a tough task against an unbeaten and highly-charged Maties outfit on their home turf.


And five minutes in, Tuks were already on the back foot as Maties flank Johann van Niekerk powered his way over the line, before beautiful combination play between Chris Smit and Munier Hartzenberg resulted in the latter dotting down 25 minutes later, handing Maties a 12-0 half-time lead.


Van Niekerk started the second half as he did the first with a try early on, yet Tuks gave themselves hope with two tries in six minutes from winger Dewald Naude to reduce the deficit to just nine points.


Yet the tide soon tuned back into the hosts’ favour as Tuks full-back Vaughan Isaacs was sent off for a dangerous tackle, with Maties making their numerical advantage count with another try, before Jordan Chait’s late penalty added three more points onto the scoreboard as Maties secured a comfortable 34-12 win.


In so doing, they continued a 20-match unbeaten run in the competition – their last loss was the 2017 final – as they lifted their fifth Varsity Cup trophy in the 12 years of the competition’s existence while defending last year’s title.


“It’s always more difficult to defend the title than to win it,” Maties head coach Hawies Fourie told SARugbymag.co.za. “You become the target of all the other teams if you are the champions, and the teams start measuring their performance against you. Even if they are not in the race for the semi-finals, if they can beat Maties, they will feel they have achieved something. You have to be at your best every Monday night.


“From the beginning, we said we were not going to have the mindset of going to defend the title, we decided we wanted to win it again. It is a different mindset, with a different purpose.”


In winning this year’s final, Maties captain Chris Massyn achieved the unique feat of winning the Varsity Cup on three separate occasions – once with his former university Tuks and twice now with Maties – as he fittingly received the final’s FNB Player That Rocks man-of-the-match award.


In other individual awards handed out for the best players of the tournament, Tuks’ Denzil Hill was named Forward of the Tournament as Stellenbosch University’s Edwill van der Merwe was voted Back of the Tournament, as talented teammate Chris Smit claimed the Overall Player of the Tournament.


Focus now shifts to the shorter format of the game, Rugby 7s, where defending FISU World University Championship Rugby 7s winners South Africa will look to repeat their 2018 success at this year’s Summer Universiade in Napoli.


South Africa have been drawn in Group A of the men’s competition against Russia, Romania and Argentina.


All photo credits: Varsity Cup