Loftus gears up for Club Champs

Five provinces have confirmed the teams that will represent them at this year’s National Club Championships.

The tournament will take place at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria from 20-26 September.

This is the first time since 2004 that the event, now in its 35th year, has been held at a venue other than the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch. It is also six years since the Blue Bulls Rugby Union has hosted the most prestigious event on the club rugby calendar.

In 2003, local team Tukkies, coached by current Springbok assistant coach Dick Muir, beat the Puk Rugby Institute 46-25 in the final, played at Loftus. Since then, Pukke have gone on to claim three of the last five titles, including the 2008 crown following a nail biting 17-12 win over Durban’s College Rovers in last year’s final.

Pukke and Impalas are still fighting it out in the Golden Lions’ Pirates Grand Challenge league to decide which team will represent the Leopards this year, but there are no such concerns for Rovers, who once again claimed the KZN Moor Cup title with relative ease to qualify for their fourth consecutive Club Champs.

With nine weeks remaining until the tournament, Rawsonville (Boland), Shimlas (Free State), Middelburg (Mpumalanga) and Kuruman (Griqualand West) have also already booked their tickets, while more qualifiers will be known after this weekend.

After a couple of years in the Club Champs wilderness, the Shimlas of the University of the Free State prevailed over Bloemfontein rivals Old Greys (2007 champions) and Central University of Technology’s Ixias (2008 winners) to claim the Free State Stadsbeker title and so return to a tournament they last won in 2002.

Middelburg and Rawsonville meanwhile will return to the Champs after missing out last year to Nelspruit and Roses United respectively. Middelburg in particular will be overjoyed, having lost their 2008 title following a dramatic 34-33 Cup final loss to their Lowveld arch-rivals.

In Griqualand West, champions Kimberley Police lost out this year to Van Druten sub-union champions Kuruman, who finished top of the league.

One club that will not be returning to the tournament is 2008 Club Champs semi-finalists Brakpan. The Valke champions performed impressively last year before being beaten by College Rovers in the last four. However, 2009 has seen them playing second fiddle to fierce rivals Springs and surprise package Vereeniging, who meet in the Valke final at Springs’ home ground this Saturday at 3pm to determine who will qualify.

The Border Premier League is also reaching its climax, with Police at home to Old Boys at Police Park in East London on Friday night in the first semi-final. Kick-off is at 8pm. Champions Buffalo host Wallabies at Buffalo Park in East London on Saturday in the second semi, with kick-off at 3:30pm. The final will be held on 10 August.

In the Eastern Province Grand Challenge, Park have staged a remarkable campaign this year and lead the Super Six log by 10 points from nearest challengers SAPS. The semi-finals will however only be held at the end of August.

In the Leopards’ Neser A league, Vaal Reefs will host fellow mine team West Wits of Carlentonville in the final, to be played on Wednesday 29 July at the Oppenheimer stadium in Orkney. Kick-off is at 8.30pm.

The remaining provinces’ champions will be decided in the coming weeks, as the Golden Lions, Griffons, Western Province, Blue Bulls and SWD provincial leagues have not yet run their course. The WP Super League A is particularly intriguing, where 2008 runners-up Hamiltons are unbeaten and hold a commanding lead over the chasing pack, which includes perennial champions Maties.

Unlike most other provinces, WP’s champions are determined by who wins the league, as opposed to who prevails in a cup final. For this reason, the Stellenbosch students face an uphill battle to accumulate the points needed to defend their title as the league begins to enter the home straight.