The waiting is finally over and the 2014 Varsity Rugby season will get going on Monday with the first FNB Varsity Shield matches.
With promotion to the FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International on the line this season, competition in the Shield will be fierce from the outset as all five teams gun for a place in the final.
The winner of the Shield will automatically secure a spot in the top tier of Varsity Rugby next year, whilst the runners-up will go into a play-off with the team that finishes seventh in the Varsity Cup.
Monday night will also offer fans a chance to experience some of the new innovations this year, as the new-look prop jerseys and the ‘Free Catch Rule’ will be on show, with both matches broadcast live on Supersport One.
The specially designed jerseys for props feature grip pads which will help with binding in the scrums, whilst the Free Catch Rule means that the ball can be marked anywhere on the field if caught on the full to gain advantage.
Both of these innovations are intended to encourage free-flowing, running rugby that will showcase the players’ skills and thrill the crowds.
The first match of the season will see defending champions FNB CUT go up against former All Blacks coach John Mitchell’s FNB UKZN Impi in Bloemfontein.
The CUT Ixias have played in all three Varsity Shield finals, lifting the trophy twice, and went unbeaten last year to stamp their dominance on the competition.
They will be desperate to continue that consistent dominance in order to move up to the Varsity Cup next year, but they face a tricky first hurdle against a revamped UKZN outfit.
The KwaZulu-Natal side finished third last year, and have their sights set even higher this season with the ambitious Mitchell at the helm.
The experienced Kiwi coach has made some major changes, including an impressive coaching team which features the likes of former Springbok flyhalf Butch James.
Mitchell told varsitycup.co.za that he has also brought in a host of new players as the Impi look to establish themselves as a major force in Varsity Rugby.
“We are quite a new side, there are probably half a dozen that are from the past, and we are probably a bit older this year from what we have brought in.
“Our aim as an organisation and as a team is that we want to play in the Varsity Cup. It is a good year because there is promotion/relegation as well.
“Whether we achieve that goal this year who knows, it will depend on how well we come together as a team,” he said.
If they want to make an early statement, then their opening match against the Ixias in Bloemfontein is the perfect opportunity, as CUT have proven themselves to be the most consistent performers in the competition.
The second match of the night will see former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ FNB UWC travel to Alice to take on the FNB Fort Hare Blues at their Davidson Rugby Stadium fortress.
The Cape side made the Varsity Shield final for the first time under De Villiers’ guidance last year, and they are intent on going one better this season.
However, they will certainly have their work cut out for them against a settled Fort Hare team that will have the fanatical Alice crowd squarely behind them in their opening match.
Fort Hare skipper Billy Dutton said that his team is intent on repaying their loyal supporters who always pack the stadium whenever they play in Alice.
“The fans are hungry, they have been asking us when it is kicking off so next week is going to be a big one for us and they will be out in their numbers and they are looking forward to a good season this year,” he said.
Fort Hare have shown that they cannot be underestimated, but Dutton has called for the Eastern Cape side to take their game to the next level this season by putting in 80-minute performances.
“We just have to concentrate for a full 80 minutes, we let it go sometimes here and there, and we don’t finish off games when we have a stranglehold on a team,” he said.
This all makes for a thrilling opening round to get the Varsity Rugby season underway, and with both matches broadcast live on Supersport channel 201.
FNB Varsity Shield fixtures and team line-ups:
FNB CUT v FNB UKZN
(CUT Rugby Stadium, Bloemfontein; Monday, January 27 – 16:45 live on Supersport)