SA’s indispensable tournament

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says the Vodacom Cup still has a very important role to play.

‘I get knocked down. But I get up again’ were the opening lines of the song that was used as background music to the TV advert that sold the Vodacom Cup in its first season in 1998. Remember it? A newborn Springbok was filmed dragging itself up from the ground, faltering, falling, and then dragging itself up again. The message was that this was the competition in which future Springbok rugby players would find their feet and learn the ropes of top-level rugby.

The competition may have been knocked over the years but it has never been knocked down or out. More than 13 years after that first season, which gave us Gaffie du Toit and heralded the beginning of a mini rugby revival in the platteland (Griquas won their first major trophy since 1970), the Vodacom Cup still has its detractors – but it continues to survive.

And unless the South African rugby hierarchy take complete leave of their senses, survive it will continue to do in this new era of Super Rugby, where the southern hemisphere regional competition extends from February to July and has started to resemble a miniseries rather than a book or movie.

While the Varsity Cup is considered the sexier, flashier and more marketable competition, and the crowds drawn to the games prove it, the Vodacom Cup remains indispensable to South African rugby as a whole and to the individual franchises that play in Super Rugby.

The service it provides for the greater good of rugby is the sense of inclusion it gives players and rugby followers in the outlying areas. Even if only a thousand people pitch up at a Vodacom Cup game between the Pumas and the Golden Lions in Witbank, it means there are a thousand people who would otherwise have been denied an opportunity to watch live rugby that day.

And with the club game not being as strong in some of those areas as it used    to be, it is even more imperative that young players growing up in those areas have some kind of localised top rugby to watch live and to aspire to as a necessary stepping stone to the higher levels of the game.

The Varsity Cup may be popular in the bigger cities where there are universities but, like it or not, it is in some senses an elitist competition in that it is only accessible to some.

There is a new trend of bringing professional players in to supplement Varsity Cup squads, one that is not completely welcomed by all the participants. But not all the next tier of players beneath Super Rugby level can become members of tertiary institutions, so any suggestion that the Vodacom Cup can be done away with and replaced by the Varsity Cup as the only alternative to Super Rugby in the early parts of the year is just pie in the sky.

One thing that needs to be accepted by those who knock the Vodacom Cup on the basis that it attracts small crowds is that entertainment is not the main emphasis of the competition. The sponsors and Saru, through their marketing pushes, try to encourage greater spectator interest, and maybe more should be done to market the tournament.

But anyone who worries that the crowds that go to Kings Park to watch a Super Rugby game would rather braai in the car park than watch a Vodacom Cup curtain-raiser is missing the point.

The number of people watching is less relevant than the number of players on the field who get the chance to experience a level of rugby that, being a significant step up from the Varsity Cup in terms of quality of play produced, ensures some level of readiness for a possible call-up to Super Rugby.

Saru chief executive Jurie Roux was heavily involved with the Varsity Cup in his previous job at Stellenbosch University, and is a big supporter of the competition, but he squirms at any suggestion that the Vodacom Cup should be replaced.

‘I think the Vodacom Cup still has a place in South African rugby. Only 22 players from each region can play Super Rugby every weekend, and not everyone is able to play in the Varsity Cup,’ he says. ‘The expanded Super Rugby format means franchises now require 40-man squads, and the Vodacom Cup allows those fringe players to get game time and show the selectors they should be in Super Rugby starting XVs.’

Roux gets unequivocal support in that view from someone else who has a lot of Varsity Cup experience but who, in a new position, has got to see just how important the Vodacom Cup is. John Dobson spent a lot of time rubbishing the Vodacom Cup to his mates when he was coaching UCT to three appearances in the Varsity Cup semi-finals (twice to the final), but he doesn’t do that now that he is coaching the Western Province Vodacom Cup team.

‘I used to stand at bars and proffer a lot of opinions on this subject, pushing varsity rugby as well as club rugby and saying that I couldn’t understand why they persisted with the Vodacom Cup, but my eyes have been opened this year,’ says Dobson.

‘The main thing that was immediately noticeable for me when I moved up to coaching the Vodacom Cup side was how much higher the level of physicality was. What made it especially noticeable to me was when the WP Vodacom Cup side, which was essentially the same side that started the competition with a draw against the Lions, put 50 points over UCT in a pre-season warm-up game in Riebeek West.

‘In fact, there were four pre-season warm-up games involving the WP Vodacom Cup squad A and B teams and the A and B teams of Stellenbosch and UCT respectively, and in each game the Vodacom Cup combination won with ease.’

Dobson says that it had to be accepted that while the Vodacom Cup sides were made up of full-time professionals, the Varsity Cup sides were made up of quasi-professionals and it was a completely different level.

‘We see Varsity Cup standout players come through and play only bit parts in the Vodacom Cup. A couple of years ago we saw Tiger Bax [now with Saracens] go straight from the UCT Varsity Cup side into the Stormers’ Super 14 side and he was thrown around a bit and just didn’t shape. I don’t think you will see many Super Rugby sides selecting players out of the Varsity Cup as it is accepted that the level just isn’t sufficiently high enough to be a stepping stone to Super Rugby.

‘The big thing really is the level of competition, and now that Super Rugby goes through to July there has to be a competition like the Vodacom Cup. It may be considered the uglier competition in terms of the support it gets and its standing with the public and the media, but it plays a crucial role in ensuring the fringe players who might be needed in Super Rugby get game time.

‘In the WP team there are several players who will be going on tour with the Stormers in May and who may get to play a big role in the Stormers’ campaign. There are also several who will be playing for WP in the Currie Cup later this year when the Springboks are at the World Cup.

‘The players need this level of competition to be ready for those challenges. I know that Heyneke Meyer at the Bulls has opted to place a stronger emphasis on the Varsity Cup this year, but I think it’s as a breeding ground for Vodacom Cup players. He sees the Varsity Cup as the pipeline to the Vodacom Cup, not as a direct pipeline to the premier Bulls Super Rugby team.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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