SAA National Club Champs countdown – 44 days to go
With the start of the 36th annual SAA National Club Championships just over six weeks away, the race for places at the most prestigious club tournament in the country is reaching its climax in leagues across the country.
The line-up for the tournament, which takes place at the University of Stellenbosch from 18-25 September, is already beginning to take shape, with 12-time champions Maties, title holders Hamilton (both Western Province), Free State University’s Shimlas, fellow Varsity Cup heavyweights Pukke, and Mossel Bay’s Barbarians (SWD) already having booked their places.
Joining them this year for a second year running will be Mpumalanga champions Middelburg, who secured their place following their 27-10 second-leg victory over White River last Saturday. Coach Buks Botha’s men cantered to a 58-12 victory in the first leg of the final to give them a comprehensive 85-22 aggregate result.
Botha, a former schoolteacher, has done wonders rebuilding the team during his first year in charge but he knows that stiffer competition awaits his young side in Stellenbosch.
“Last year we went to Club Champs and lost 66-3 to Pirates in the first round,” he said. “My main challenge when I took over the job was that only a few players who were involved last year were still at the club. I had to field a lot of youngsters and they have performed unbelievably well this year.”
Botha said that a lack of quality competition in many Platteland provinces’ club leagues made it difficult for those teams to handle the step up in quality once at Club Champs.
“It’s a problem for us and for many other teams,” he said. “We don’t mind challenges such as travelling long distances to games. The real issue is that some of the teams we played this year perhaps don't belong in the top leagues. Winning a match 110-0 is not good for rugby in the province. It also isn’t great preparation for us and if you lose your first game, you’re out.”
Middelburg will be captained at the Club Champs by experienced lock WA de Klerk. The second-rower will lead a largely inexperienced team that features the likes of ace kicker Gerhardt Munro and exciting centre Louis Roos.
“WA has really led from the front this year. There are a few positions where there are some older guys but in general it’s a young team,” said Botha. “Most of the guys are involved with the Puma Amateur, Under-19 and Under-21 teams.
“That’s good for us because it will help to keep the guys active in the coming weeks. It’s a problem that most of the club leagues have already ended and that we have to try to keep match fit for the next six weeks, but we can’t wait for the tournament to start.”
In other results, defending Moor Cup champions College Rovers look set to represent KZN at the Club Champs for the fifth year in a row when they beat arch-rivals Durban Collegians 31-13 in a Premier Division match played at Kings Park last Friday.
Rovers are unbeaten this year and their 12th straight win took them to 56 log points – three ahead of Collegians, who have just one match remaining. Rovers have a match in hand and barring a spectacular collapse will return to the Club Champs at a venue that has been kind to them in recent years.
Rovers lost the 2006 and 2008 finals (both times to Pukke) at the Danie Craven Stadium and 2010 may just be a case of third-time lucky for the KwaZulu-Natalians, who look set to once again be able to call on the likes of Chris Jordaan and Justin Downey for the trip to Stellenbosch.
Both Sharks players have made a huge impression at the Club Champs in recent years and their quality should once again ensure that the KZN side will challenge hard for the silverware.