Varsity Cup is wide open

GARETH DUNCAN writes the Varsity Cup trophy has remained in the Cape since 2008 but expect a tight title race this season.

When it comes to the Varisty Cup, Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town are the only teams who have won silverware. Maties achieved a hat-trick of triumphs since the tournament’s inaugural run in 2008 while Ikeys earned their first crown last season when they came from behind to beat Tuks in an entertaining Pretoria final.

The two Cape universities are considered favourites again this season. However, that prediction seems flawed when you analyse the strength of all the current squads. Most of the other top universities have used a clever recruitment plan over the off-season and will provide a tougher title challenge.

2012 Varsity Cup analysis:

Ikeys did well to lift the cup in 2011. However, the massive blow ahead of their title defending campaign is the loss of players who have made a step up to provincial and Super Rugby level. Flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, scrumhalf Nick Groom, centres Marcel Brache and Tim Whitehead and loose forwards Nizaam Carr and Siya Kolisi are just some of the names that were instrumental in their triumphant run last year – especially tournament top scorer Catrakilis. Although they have an experienced pack, it will be interesting to see how they cope with a new-look, young backline.

2011 log finish: 2nd, winners prediction: 4th

Under former director of rugby Heyneke Meyer, the Bulls have used the Varsity Cup platform to blood some of their junior talent. Tuks have benefited from this, with the junior and up-and-coming Bulls boys adding much-needed strength to their team. Flanker and former Baby Bok captain Arno Botha was one of the top performers for Tuks last season, and expect players of a similar calibre to emerge in 2012.

2011 log finish: 4th, runners-up prediction: 2nd

UJ had a strong league run in 2011, but a 25-11 home semi-final loss to Tuks ended their dreams season early. UJ have retained most of their players heading into the new season and that continuity will help them. The addition of former Sharks junior flyhalf Guy Cronje will be a good replacement for new Maties pivot Andre Smith. However, you have to question if UJ have the overall quality that’s needed to go all the way.

2011 finish: 1st, losing semi-finalists prediction: 5th

Like Tuks, Shimlas have used the Cheetahs junior and fringe players to strengthen their team – and they look like a dangerous side this season. The emergence of Lappies Labuschagne, Nico Scheepers and Cameron Jacobs will give Shimlas some bite, and the Free State boys will be aiming for another top-four finish this year – something they are capable of.

2011 finish: 3rd, losing semi-finalists prediction: 3rd

It was a sad 2011 for Maties as they struggled with a squad that was hit by a player exodus. They failed to make the Varsity Cup play-offs for the first time, which was followed by disappointing domestic club and national club championship campaigns. But head coach Chean Roux has done a great job in rebuilding a competitive squad during the off-season. They’ve also used their WP reserves well, which will see Tertius Daniller, Helmut Lehmann and Sam Mabombo feature in one of the top loose trios in the competition.

2011 log finish: 5th prediction: 1st

Pukke suffered a disappointing campaign last year as they finished in an all-time low of sixth place. Normally regular play-off contenders, the boys from Potch struggled against the top teams which cost former coach Rudy Joubert his job. Hannes Esterhuizen has taken over the reigns, but it will be too much to expect Pukke to bounce back into the top four this year.

2011 finish: 6th prediction: 6th

They haven’t finished outside the bottom two, but there’s optimism that the boys from PE will do better this year. They’ve recruited several key players, which includes former KZN centres Quinton Crocker, Howard Mnisi and Devon Lailvaux. However, they are still considered the whipping boys of the competition, along with TUT, and they’ll do exceptionally well to finish mid-table.

2011 finish: 7th prediction: 7th

Like the Madibas, TUT have also struggled in the Varsity Cup over the years. The harsh reality is that they don’t have the same quality of players that the other teams have at their disposal. And while NMMU have employed a better recruitment policy, TUT have failed to draw any big names to their campus and are set for successive wooden-spoon finishes.

2011 finish: 8th prediction: 8th

The new scoring system will also make things interesting. With penalties and drop goals devalued to two points and conversions increased to three points, teams are encouraged to score tries. There are concerns that this change will see more penalties conceded, but the word from the Varsity Cup organizers is that referees will sin bin regular offenders.

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