There is a new sense of optimism among open clubs north of the Vaal, and nowhere is this more evident than at ambitious Klerksdorp, who are setting their sights on qualifying for a National Club Championships taking place this year in their own backyard.
The reasons for the optimism are primarily two-fold: a fresh new cross-border league structure involving the top Golden Lions, Leopards, Valke and Mpumalanga clubs, and the announcement that this year's season-ending SARU Club Champs will exclude university teams for the first time.
The tournament will take place from 15-21 September in Rustenburg, and it's ironically the host club, Impala, who are one of the teams standing in Klerksdorp's way – even though the two clubs do not play in the same league.
The top domestic league in the Leopards is the Neser A, but the province's four best clubs play in altogether tougher company in the Predator (NWU Pukke and Rustenburg Impala) and Merlin leagues, which is where Klerksdorp and Vaal Reefs find themselves.
“We have won the Neser the past two years but to improve you have to be exposed to better teams,” said newly-elected Klerksdorp chairman Raymond Vermeulen. “In a way we grew out of the Neser, which is essentially a two-team-per-club league. We have four senior sides, which is why we moved to the Merlin and why we believe we can make an impression in the Predator next year.”
The Predator is, together with the Western Province Super League A, arguably the strongest league in the country, with the likes of Varsity Cup heavyweights Pukke, UJ and Wits clashing week-in, week-out with top open clubs Pirates, Roodepoort, Raiders, Springs, Brakpan and Impala.
“The northern clubs are very excited about the new leagues, although of course travelling costs are the main issue,” said Vermeulen. “In the past you'd battle to motivate the guys to travel to the same old places, but now we're playing every week against clubs we've never faced before. It's an adventure.”
Klerksdorp's match against Vaal Reefs on 16 June will be their most important of the year. “Whoever wins that will play Impala on 7 July for a place in the Club Champs,” said Vermeulen. “In a way it's tough to put everything on one game, but we have a solid coaching team (Donald Richter, assisted by SP Gresse) and a group of players who believe they can do it.”
Asked how Klerksdorp regularly field four senior sides in an age where most clubs can barely manage two, Vermeulen said: “There's no secret. We've got a young management team with lots of energy, who are working daily to make sure the guys play here. We also started visiting schools to encourage the boys to join us and not give up the game. And it's working.”
Elsewhere around the country, Pretoria Police edged closer to qualifying for the Club Champs when they beat challengers Centurion 23-10 away to move to the top of the Blue Bulls' Carlton League after four rounds.
Police join Varsity Cup champions Tukkies, who beat TUT 66-6, on 19 points, although the students have their noses ahead thanks to points difference. This Saturday sees Police host Harlequins, who are lying fifth after a 49-28 defeat to Naka Bulls, while Tukkies are at home to Centurion.
Down south, surprise package Villagers Worcester opened up a seven-point lead after seven rounds of the Boland Premier League when they beat second-placed Robertson 41-34 in a dramatic match played in front of 5,000 spectators at Boland Park in Worcester.
Ceres' 23-19 win over Saldanha moved them into joint second place alongside Robertson, with both teams needing to win this Saturday's matches, against Black Leaves and Wellington, to stay in the race. Villagers need just four points from their final two matches, against Saldanha away and Darling at home, to be guaranteed of finishing top of the league after the first round.
In the central regions, there were hard-fought wins for Postmasburg (34-33 over Upington) and Kuruman (21-12 over Kimberley Police) in the Griquas Super League, while Varsity teams Shimlas and CUT had altogether easier rides in the Free State First League, winning 87-21 against Crusaders and 69-26 against Police respectively.
Leading contenders for the EP title, NMMU and Despatch, remain unbeaten after big wins over United Barbarians (57-7) and Gardens (35-13) respectively, while African Bombers, quarter-finalists last year but unconvincing in the opening rounds, clicked spectacularly to beat champions Park 41-14 in Zwide. In one of the matches of the coming weekend, Despatch host Bombers at the WJ de Wet Stadium at 15h30.
There was a shock in KZN when UKZN Pietermaritzburg beat Durban Collegians 20-14 in Moor Cup action, while up in Gauteng, UJ began their Predator League campaign with a 38-20 victory over Pirates. There were also important wins for fellow Jo'burg sides Raiders (22-20 over Boksburg) and Roodepoort (22-16 over NWU Vaal).
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