Embattled Border must build on Fort Hare’s Varsity Shield triumph, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Fort Hare Blues gave Eastern Cape rugby a much-needed boost when they won the Varsity Shield for the first time.
Fort Hare finished fifth in last year’s tournament and their only previous final appearance had been a big defeat by the University of the Western Cape in 2017. But, in April, the Blues won all six of their league-stage matches before defeating last year’s runners-up, Walter Sisulu University, in the semi-finals.
That set up a final against two-time defending champions Cape Peninsula University in Alice that was decided only in the 83rd minute. In what should have been the last play of the game, CPUT – leading 27-21 – knocked on when all they had to do was kick the ball out, gifting Fort Hare a five-metre scrum. And the hosts’ dominant pack made it count, earning a penalty try that sparked wild celebrations on the field and in the stands.
Luma Ke Blues 🏉💥! Incredible scenes as @ufh1916 win the FNB Varsity Shield 2022 title in the 83rd minute with a massive scrum after the final hooter. The home crowd goes absolutely crazy.
— Varsity Shield (@varsityshield) April 21, 2022
Fort Hare dedicated the win to their director of rugby and former head coach, Elliot Fana, who had died in a car accident the previous month. At that stage of the tournament, Fort Hare had won their first four matches. In their next fixture, which was played earlier than scheduled so Fort Hare’s players and management could attend Fana’s funeral that night, the Blues upset CPUT in Bellville. It gave them the belief they needed to go all the way.
Fort Hare’s turnaround strategy was simple – play to win. Previous Blues teams had wanted to entertain the crowd by running the ball from all parts of the field, but that didn’t win tournaments so, under head coach Lumumba Currie, they adopted a pragmatic approach to kick more for territory and focus more on defence. Currie recruited players who could play that kicking game and ensured the team was well conditioned. They also had a dominant forward pack that ultimately won them the title.
Currie hopes Fort Hare’s success will have a positive impact on Border, where he is also head coach, and Eastern Cape rugby in general.
However, the Border Rugby Union remains cash-strapped and under SA Rugby administration. Only 22 of their players are on six-month semi-professional contracts, with the rest being paid match fees. Border were only told a week before the start of this year’s Currie Cup First Division that they would be taking part, which perhaps explains the Bulldogs’ opening round 106-7 defeat by the Griffons in Welkom.
In April, Border’s clubs rejected an offer from the Sharks that would have given their provincial neighbours a majority stake in the union of up to 74% and complete control over Border rugby. The clubs felt Border would have effectively become a sub-union and that the deal was similar to the one that got them into their financial mess in the first place.
In 2011, KwaZulu-Natal businessman Andre Killian bought Border for just R1.2 million while inheriting its debt book of R2.2m, which gave him control over the union’s affairs. Long story short, things didn’t work out and Killian had to be paid R7m to relinquish that control. There was also a R4m tax debt that hadn’t been paid to Sars and, with other debtors coming forward, Border ended up having to pay R18m back to SA Rugby.
Border are still trying to dig themselves out of that hole. Yet, Currie and others involved in Border rugby remain optimistic about the future. They believe things can be turned around at the union if the right people are appointed and SA Rugby’s administration of the union ends. They believe there is enough talent at the University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and Rhodes University to make Border competitive again. And they hope the Eastern Cape will be given a franchise again, which will help them to retain their top talent.
That may all seem like pie in the sky but, as Fort Hare showed, dreams do sometimes come true.