The 2017 Varsity Cup is finally here, and we’re set for a cracking opening day with new boys Wits hosting 2015 champions, Shimalas, in the day’s opener. This is one of the two televised games which we will be taking a more in-depth look at. The second televised fixture is a replay of the 2016 semi-final with defending champions NWU taking on UJ.
There are also rapid fire tips for the two non-televised games taking place which see UCT lock horns with NMMU down in the Western Cape and TUKS taking on Maties at Loftus.
Before we get into the meat of the preview, here’s a few things you’ll need to know about the rule and fixture changes.
This comes segment came courtesy of our freelance scribe Shaun Goosen. Follow him on Twitter h.
The 2017 FNB Varsity Cup kicks off on the 30th of this month and, in a historic first for the competition, will contain nine different universities. Defending champions NWU Pukke will look to add to their one and only title after playing so marvellously in 2016, but will be under pressure to qualify for the playoffs with the likes of Maties, UJ and Tuks all looking to atone for last year’s disappointments.
Teams will do battle over the course of twelve weeks (playing four home, and four away games each). The introduction of byes this year will also give the squads time to recover in-between their bruising encounters.
A victory will see teams receive four points, while draws are worth two points. Bonus points will only be awarded to sides that score four or more tries in a game (to encourage attractive, attacking rugby), as well as to teams that lose by seven points or less.
The teams that make up the top four by the end of the round-robin phase will qualify for the semi-finals, with the first-ranked side hosting the fourth, and the second-ranked side hosting the third. The respective winners of each playoff game will play in the April 17th final, at the home of the highest ranked finalist.
To further encourage teams to play free-flowing, positive rugby, tries will either be worth five or seven points (before the conversion) depending on where the try-scoring move began - if the move started in the try-scoring team's own half, the score will be worth seven points. This is not the first time that such experimentation with points has been used in Varsity Cup campaigns, as the rugby powers that be continue to search for new and improved ways to reward fairness and high-quality play within the game.
The following sides will compete in this year's edition (brackets beside respective teams' names represent the year(s) they have won competitions past):
CUT Ixias | Maties (2008, 2009, 2010) | NMMU Madibaz | NWU Pukke (2016) |UCT Ikey Tigers (2011, 2014) | UFS Shimlas (2015) | UJ | UP Tuks (2012, 2013) | Wits
Wits v Shimlas | Monday 30 January | Wits Rugby Stadium | 16:30
To Win (80 Mins)
Wits 8/1 | Draw 22/1| Shimlas 1/33
Wits (+21.5) 9/10 | Shimlas (-21.5) 9/10
Wits were good value in last year’s Varsity Shield although they did benefit greatly from the points deduction handed to UKZN. The points sanction saw Wits top the Varsity Shield standings and automatically advance to the top tier.
The new boys on the block have lost one of their more senior players with 22-year-old inside centre Wade Worthington moving on. However, Worthington's replacement, AJ van Blerk is a solid centre who, like Worthington, possess an educated boot.
The man to watch for Wits is Warren Gilbert. This is the captain’s final year at Wits and he’ll be wanting to cap off his tenure on a high note. He’s a brilliant reader of the game, who marshals his back line an army general. The fly-half will have a huge role to play for Johannesburg side this evening.
Shimlas really didn’t enjoy the best of years in 2016. The men from the Free Sate missed out on the semi-finals berths by three points and ended the competition negative 25 points differential. The Free State University come into this season with a squad that features a multitude of youngsters as a lot of their senior statesmen have completed their degrees and are now plying their trade with the Free State Cheetahs junior sides.
Verdict: Wits 8/1
Wits have been in decent nick during their preseason bagging wins over UJ and Pukke. They have a solid pack who could give their exciting backline an ideal platform to launch from. I will certainly be having a punt on the new boys tonight. For those looking for a safer bet, I recommend taking the hosts on the +21.5 at 9/10.
UJ v NWU Pukke | Monday 30 January | UJ Stadium | 18:45
To Win (80 Mins)
UJ 15/10 | Draw 22/1 | Pukke 5/10
UJ (+6.5) 17/20 | Pukke (-6.5) 17/20
The second televised game of the day is set to be an absolute humdinger with a youthful UJ side taking on defending champions Pukke. The hosts were knocked out of the 2016 edition of the competition by Pukke, so they’ll be looking for a spot of revenge on their own patch this evening.
Pukke have had the spine of their side ripped away. Their skipper has moved on as have a host of senior forwards. They have managed to retain a few of last year’s backs, though, with fly-half Divan Nel and centre Jaco Fourie turning out for UJ this evening.
Pukke have also lost a few of their senior contingent with mercurial fullback Rhyno Smith preparing for a Super Rugby campaign with the Sharks. Tonight’s clash will be somewhat of an acid test for the Pukke youngsters. While UJ aren’t as strong as Maties or Tuks, they will provide a stiff challenge.
Verdict: UJ 15/10
I’m going with the hosts here despite their opponents having a stellar record at tonight’s venue. UJ will be desperate to avenge last year’s semi-final defeat and I think Pukke may struggle with their new combinations. For those who want to play its safe, back the +6.5 market.
Quick Fire Tips
UCT v NMMU
The hosts are strong favourites here but I suspect we may be in for an upset here. UCT were extremely poor last year and they haven’t made any upgrades to their squad. Get on an NNMU win at 5/2.
TUKS v Maties
This is the game of the round but unfortunately, it isn’t being televised. These two heavyweights have had produced some epic games in the past and tonight will be no different. It’s a tough one to tip but I’m going to back the hosts at 11/10.