It’s official! UWC Rugby team has been promoted to the Varsity Cup – South Africa’s premier university rugby competition – for the first time, after sweeping aside all their opponents to finish top of the FNB Varsity Shield.
The FNB UWC side achieved their historic moment by beating the University of Fort Hare 39-18 before a cheering crowd of home supporters at UWC Sports Stadium on Thursday, 15 March 2018 - echoing the victory over the same team in last year’s Varsity Shield final.
Their promotion is a dream come true for UWC - a dream that had eluded them since the establishment of the Varsity Shield competition in 2011 as a second tier tournament to the Varsity Cup.
Tries by Jacques van Zyl, Tristan Leyds, Mark Bright, Reece Bocks, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Alwyn Carstens, as well as conversions by Lyle Hendricks (2) and captain Aidynn Cupido, were enough to ensure that the University team made it five wins from five games and join the big guns in the university rugby fraternity next year.
With one game remaining in the seven-team round-robin mini league, UWC are now on 25 points - three points ahead of their closest rival Walter Sisulu University, who have played all six of their matches. This means their last game (away at Rhodes University on Monday, 19 March) will be a ceremonial one.
A long road to victory
The UWC side has been in scintillating form since 1995 Rugby World Cup Springbok winner Chester Williams took over the coaching reins in late 2016.
In his first season in charge last year, the UWC Rugby Club narrowly missed promotion to the Varsity Cup when they lost both the final of the Varsity Shield and the promotional play-offs. Assisted by fellow Springbok Bolla Conradie, UWC won the Varsity Shield competition last year - but remained in the Shield another year as promotion to the Varsity Cup only happens every second year.
An ecstatic Williams hailed the team’s unity as the deciding factor in the championship. “The players stick together, they trust each other and have been working as a team throughout. That has been good for UWC rugby.”
Team captain Cupido echoes his coach’s sentiments, saying the stellar performance was due to the brotherhood the team formed since last year. “We realised that we needed to take our friendships off the field also.”
Cupido also attributes the team’s success to the influence of Williams and his coaching staff. “They have vast experience from the Springboks and the World Cup, and that is something you cannot replace. We are very grateful to have them in our team.”
UWC Rector, Prof Tyrone Pretorius, has been a staunch supporter of UWC’s rugby team, attending all the home games, starting with the first game of their campaign on 19 February when they trounced Walter Sisulu University 42-5.
On Thursday night, he stood in his usual spot in the stands to watch his rugby team - and the crowd - explode in cheers and celebration as the final whistle sounded.
“Our rugby team, under the stewardship of former Springbok player Chester Williams, has put in two years of hard work and dedication to get to this point,” said Prof Pretorius. “Advancing to next year’s Varsity Cup is proof that UWC is committed to excellence, performing at the highest levels and nurturing talent. I am very proud of the team and coaching staff - and glad that their hard work has been rewarded with their move to the top tier in university rugby.”
Mandla Gagayi, Director of Sports Administration at UWC, notes that UWC Rugby owes its success to all those who have gone before.
“They laid great foundations and an ethos for us to follow. Since my arrival at UWC in 2015, I have experienced first-hand what it will mean to students, staff, alumni and the general community for UWC to play in the Varsity Cup.”
But while the University celebrates the promotion, it must be alert to the challenges ahead - now that the Shield is firmly in hand, it’s time to reach for the Cup.
“We will be venturing into a new space where there is even greater demand for commitment in terms of human resources, facilities, finances, etc.,” Gagayi warns. “But if we all work together as UWC staff, students, alumni, community and corporates, we can definitely take UWC to even greater heights in the Varsity Cup.”
Still, for now, there’s plenty to celebrate. promotion to Varsity Cup symbolises a “great game changer” is proof of UWC’s role of giving hope to those who never had opportunities before.
“This victory further demonstrates our strength to always rise above our challenges as an institution and compete against the best. It’s a great game changer for the University.”
The top four teams in the Varsity Shield will be involved in knockout matches that will see UWC, as winners, taking on a team that will finish fourth in the first semi-final.