On the same day that the Sharks enjoyed centre stage in a high profile Superugby semi-final win against the Stormers, the province’s only Varsity Cup entrant, the UKZN Impi, who compete the Varsity Shield (Varsity Cup B-section) were involved in a do-or-die battle of their own in Pietermaritzburg. The 14-8 come from behind victory against NWU-Vaal was not to secure promotion to the Varsity Cup proper but rather a relegation avoiding match. By winning the game the Impi secured their right to complete in the 2013 edition of the Varsity Shield.
While the Sharks nearest local rivals enjoy healthy relationships with the universities in their regions, it’s difficult to say the same about the situation in Kwazulu-Natal. Here the rugby union and the university seem to be on totally different pages. If anything a proper restoration of the University of KZN’s rugby programme to its former glory days might be viewed as a threat to the business that it the Sharks Academy rather than being looked at as a benefit to the Sharks. It’s presumed that in order to become competitive, the University would have to target and therefore compete for signatures of the same promising young players the Sharks Academy hopes to attract.
A lot has been made of the success of the Varsity Cup. It certainly is a well marketed Monday night format. The rugby being played on the field itself: not that great! Very much mistake riddled preseason stuff played by relative unknowns. The players fit into one of three broad categories: 1. youngsters on the rise that going somewhere in pro rugby, 2. straw clutchers who’ve reached their peak and 3. previously overlooked or forgotten players who show they have the potential to cut it at a higher level. It’s the last category that really underlines the true benefit to rugby of the Varsity Cup. Say what you like about the Vodacom Cup but it still remains a far superior competition in terms of pitting quality players in a strength versus strength structure. The real plus for the unions of the Varsity Cup teams has been it’s showcasing of a vibey student party lifestyle which is very appealing to just about every youngster out there. The introduction of the Young Guns under-20 competition has been equally beneficial to the unions with competing varsity teams, with the calibre of players taking part in the Young Guns being extremely high in relation to the Varsity Cup itself.
To overcome this attraction of the Varsity Cup, the Young Guns and the student campus lifestyle, the Sharks should really push for a much overdue national under-20 competition to be introduced during the first few months of the year. This would this put South Africa in a much stronger position to assess talent and form ahead of the annual Junior Rugby Championship for under-20 players. For the Sharks it could possibly also take a lot of steam out of varsity rugby by ensuring that players who want to pursue their dreams of being professional players first, students second aren’t swayed by a bit televised rugby on a Monday night. However even the introduction of a national under-20 competition could have it’s drawbacks for the Sharks as it may put them at loggerheads with struggling club rugby that make use of many of the top junior players during the first part of the year.