No fewer than 12 of the world champion Springboks team came through the Varsity Cup or Shield. Can South Africa’s university game show us the stars of the future? This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in February.

University Challenge: A look at the Varsity Cup

AMIDST THE buzz before the 2019 World Cup final, a Springbok legend took the chance to laud an avenue for South African talent.

“To have so many players from the FNB Varsity Cup and FNB Varsity Shield in the Springbok squad is the dream I envisioned when I started the Varsity Cup in 2009,” said Francois Pienaar, the 1995 World Cup-winning captain.

He went on: “Players like Bongi Mbonambi, Handré Pollard and Damian De Allende have stood out in this team and what’s really special is having Varsity Shield players Sbu Nkosi and Herschel Jantjies playing their role in getting the Springboks to the final.

“Considering the competitiveness we’ve seen in the last two years in the Varsity Cup, I think we can expect many more Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield stars to graduate to the Springboks squad at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.”

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The backer: Former Boks captain Francois Pienaar (Getty Images)

Those names were five of 12 former varsity talents to travel with the Boks to Japan. Completing the list were Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Lood de Jager, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane, Vincent Koch and Warrick Gelant.

University rugby in Europe? It’s not seen as a great testing ground for many future Six Nations stars. Yet. But despite Pienaar having a vested interest – he co-founded the Varsity Cup after all – there are many other voices that see the event (or the step down, the Varsity Shield) as a good shop window for talent that’s not quite ripped onto the scene in SA yet.

The varsity season typically starts in February and runs until the middle of April. Any players contracted to the South African rugby unions who then play in varsity are usually U21. Those talents tend to start off their season playing Varsity Cup and then join up with their respective Super Rugby sides once that university competition finishes. Any players not contracted to a Super Rugby team will continue with their varsity teams in their respective local club league. Or in some cases, get picked up for rugby elsewhere.

“As a schoolboy in South Africa you are looking to play SA schools and then the Baby Boks, U21 and Currie Cup,” says lethal Edinburgh wing Duhan van der Merwe. “In the back of my head I never went to the Blue Bulls thinking that I wanted to play Varsity Cup. But it got to that stage where I was 20, there wasn’t the opportunity to play Super Rugby and I was like, ‘Well, I need to get my name out there.’ It’s an awesome platform (the cup) for any youngster, or even any player under 25, to close the gap and it offers massive exposure.”

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On the attack: Edwill van der Merwe of Maties last season (Varsity Cup)

That’s how it worked for van der Merwe. Having scored for fun for Tuks (University of Pretoria) in 2016, he was plucked straight out of the varsity game and taken to France, with Montpellier.

While positive PR for the cup is predicated largely on the fact that 45 Boks have played in it since 2008, the competition has also pushed others around the world game too. At the launch of the 2019 event, Pienaar pointed out to the press that lock Reniel Hugo had gone from varsity to winning the Top League with Toyota Verblitz. Don Armand at Exeter also got a shout-out.

Van der Merwe doesn’t know if more scouts will pursue players on the fringe of Super Rugby powering through varsity – “Even if you don’t play Currie Cup after and you ask ‘what do you do?’, it’s difficult to answer” – but there are others who have seen kids blossom after their short stint in the uni games.

Ireland-qualified Ulster prop Gareth Milasinovich also used his Varsity Cup experience with the University of Johannesburg to help him move abroad, ending up with Worcester in 2015. Yet the competition is not simply stacked with 23 players on each team destined to wear national green. And juggling provincial demands, a desire to earn a Super Rugby deal and the academic load is certainly no teenage breeze.

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“It’s definitely a proving ground,” Milasinovich says of the university competition. “When I came out of school I had to make a decision. I was trying to choose between the rugby and a degree. I was struggling to manage both, trying to travel back and forth between training and lectures and eventually my parents sat me down and said, ‘You need to make a decision’. So I decided to get my studies out of the way and then if (elite) rugby is still an option afterwards, that is amazing.

“I think the Varsity Cup provided that perfect platform for me to still play at a decent level and come out with good qualifications for my post-rugby career. It’s where Worcester picked me up initially, from the Varsity Cup, and I played with Malcolm Marx as well.

“You play with a few players who you realise even there that they have something special. They’ve all kicked on as well, which has been a good advertisement for the competition.”

Debate was sparked in 2017-18 when promising South African prop Keynan Knox was signed by Munster’s academy, straight out of school. No varsity for him. He will potentially represent Ireland after three years in the country (as it was a December 2017 move, he only needs three years’ residency rather than five).

However, while some argue over the issues of national identity and the player drain in South Africa, it’s also worth discussing the value of such moves for teenagers in the country who wish to study abroad. After all, South Africans know what it’s like to deal with visa wrangling and any smooth avenue that allows you to see the world can be attractive to some.

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Downpour: The sodden UJ-Maties fixture in 2014 (Getty Images)

For Milasinovich, the probity and competency of South African uni teams should not be dismissed. Others believe that more credit is due.

“Education is a massive carrot to dangle,” says Jonathan Mokuena. The highly-rated former Blitzbok had previously coached North Western University.

“But Varsity Cup definitely offers professionalism. There is no way you could be the boss of this kind of set-up and not be professional. But I think the difference with varsity is that it’s quite strict with regards to getting the right amount of credits in study. Even if you move around, in-between universities, there’s still a certain rule that you can’t play if you don’t pass. That’s it. So I think the rules around the Varsity Cup and how they implement that is really good.

“However, I do think, with youngsters nowadays and especially in South Africa – because they know there are so many opportunities abroad – many of them would rather go and take the chance.

“Another thing is that South Africa has got a lot of talent – a lot of talent. And I’m sure even in the UK, young people don’t want to fight for things anymore. They want quick access, quick internet, quick WhatsApp (and instant recognition). So that’s one thing we are trying to sort out. Rassie (Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby) is looking at the contracting model and how he’s going to try and keep the youngsters – the potential 2023 World Cup players – in our country.

Related: RFU denied links with Rassie Erasmus

“I’ve always believed we need a different system within World Rugby where we say, ‘If you’re under 21, you can’t be contracted, you need to go and study first.’ I quite like the American Football system: you don’t qualify from school, you have to go through the colleges. I like that system. It ensures we have better men going into the world – not just sports people but better men and better fathers. In our country that is one thing we need.”

At senior school and university level, how many teenagers are taught to pay a bill or deal with tax or change a nappy or even cook for themselves?

Mokuena laughs that Erasmus never has to deal with teenagers breaking up with their girlfriend or needing to eat despite being skint. Real-life experiences are important.

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Proving ground: Jonathan Mokuena has coached in Varsity (Getty Images)

Mokuena also makes clear that while all uni teams are professional in their approach, there is a vast difference in budgets and facilities between institutions like the powerhouse Maties (Stellenbosch) and NWU, and there is a variety of approaches to the courses on offer to players. The coach is proud of the academic drive when he was with North Western and adds: “I’ve spoken to the CEO of Varsity Cup about putting a cap on the amount of money universities are allowed to spend on players.”

According to Pienaar, the competition is also a nursery for fantastic coaching, previously citing John Dobson and Robert du Preez as men who have risen through the ranks. Hawies Fourie’s work with Maties helped land him the Cheetahs gig, yet Mokuena feels there should be more recognition for the level of work coaches like him put in when assessing CVs for higher-placed jobs.

Either way, he believes that as other youth tournaments fall away elsewhere, the value of the Varsity Cup grows. There should be more opportunities for talented youngsters to study, if they deserve to. And even now, he believes that it’s a great avenue for players from diverse backgrounds to access the pro ladder – “Due to the certain number of players of colour you need to field… Over eight universities can produce 40-50 quality players of colour.”

For a competition that only runs a few months a year, there are those who feel it is a vital part of South African rugby’s rich tapestry. The significance can be overhyped but not for those involved, who have used it as a stepping stone or as a field of talent to scout.

This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in February.

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