With just over 10 weeks remaining until the start of the 2011 National Club Championships in Stellenbosch, from 17-23 September, traditional Mpumalanga heavyweights Nelspruit have not given up hope of booking their ticket to SARU’s season-ending flagship clubs tournament.
Nelspruit last qualified for the Club Champs in 2008, but since then the Lowveld outfit have endured a couple of lean seasons, coupled with the rise of arch-rivals Middelburg (Mpumalanga champions in 2009 and 2010) and an increased level of competition amongst a number of resurgent Lowveld clubs.
“We’re in a rebuilding phase right now,” said Nelspruit team manager Dries van Vuuren. “After our last visit to the Club Champs we lost a number of players, including our club captain, to our rivals Witrivier. But this year we’ve got a good young side, of which four players have made the Pumas U21 team.”
The Mpumalanga club league is unique in that the province’s size has necessitated two top divisions – one for the Hoëveld and Koolveld regions, and another for the Lowveld. Both divisions’ semi-finals and finals will take place on 6 and 13 August respectively, whereafter the Hoëveld-Koolveld and Lowveld winners play each other in a two-legged final to determine the overall Pumas champion and Club Champs qualifier.
Nelspruit currently lie third in the Lowveld league, behind unbeaten Witrivier and second-placed Barberton. “We play our final league game of the season against Barberton this week and although we can’t catch them we want to make sure we finish third so that we can play them again in the semis instead of Witrivier,” said Van Vuuren. “We haven’t had the best of seasons and we probably shouldn’t still be in the running but you never know what can happen in a playoff match.”
Should Nelspruit pull off a minor miracle and win the Lowveld title, they will most likely come up against Middelburg, currently unbeaten in the Hoëveld-Koolveld division, for the overall Mpumalanga crown.
“Club rugby in the Lowveld is undergoing a revival and it’s good to see,” said Van Vuuren. “We’ve got 10 clubs who are all becoming more competitive. The strength isn’t concentrated in one club only and competition is always good.”
In other news from around the country, newcomers Saldanha had another good win in the Boland Premier League, 42-13 over Robertson. Things are getting tight in the Border Super League, with Fort Hare beating log leaders Winter Rose 8-3 to move to second, and resurgent East London Police edging second-placed Buffalo 27-22 to move into title contention.
Park reached the Eastern Province Grand Challenge final with a 10-8 victory over Port Elizabeth Harlequins, while national club champions and five-time KZN Moor Cup champions Jonsson College Rovers continued on their incredible run, notching a 48th victory in 49 league and tournament matches dating back to April 2009 with a 50-17 win over Durban Harlequins.
In the Leopards’ Neser A league, a late rally from former platteland powerhouses Lichtenburg, who boast seven Springboks among their former players including captains Basie Viviers and Wynand Claassen, couldn’t prevent neighbours Hartbeesfontein from hanging on for a 25-19 win that keeps them in the title hunt.
Progress lost only their second match in 15 SWD Premier League outings, 25-12 away to Uniondale United, while Springs march on unopposed in the Valke Peregrine Super League, their latest conquest being a 47-0 whitewash of Boksburg.
With 73 days to kick-off of the 2011 Club Champs, four of the 14 automatic qualifiers have already been confirmed: Maties (WP), Progress (SWD), Shimlas (Free State) and Roses United (Boland).