Teams from South Western Districts have traditionally underperformed at the National Club Championships but the Eagles' surprise 2012 qualifiers, Blanco, are determined to buck the trend when the season-ending tournament takes place in Rustenburg in September.
Blanco will represent SWD at the Club Champs for the first time since 2004, after the club, situated in the outlying suburb of George from where it draws its name, became the first team in 20 years to reach the halfway stage of the 12-team Premier League unbeaten.
The club's revival this year is due in no small measure to the inspirational presence of head coach and former Springbok fullback Bevin Fortuin, who, after a long layoff, has returned to on-field action as well – as a substitute in Blanco's 33-13 victory over Oudtshoorn's All Blacks last weekend.
The 33-year-old Fortuin was born and bred in George and won the last of his two Test caps against Australia in 2007. He also enjoyed a highly successful first-class career with, amongst others, the Cheetahs and Eagles before hanging up his professional boots.
Apart from coaching his club, Fortuin also takes charge of the Eagles Under-21 team. But his main job is that of DA ward councillor for Blanco – an impoverished community for whom the rugby team has so far this year proved an inspiration.
Blanco president Fareed Stemmet, a former Eden District Municipality Mayor, said the club had already made “heavy inroads” since their formation in 1994. “As with many clubs established after unity in 1992, Blanco are an amalgamation of Wanderers, a former Federation club; Evergreens, a former SARU club; and Blanco, a former SA Rugby Board club,” said Stemmet.
“Our home ground used to be Evergreens' field but it's our home now. Our first team is virtually an under-23 side and such has been their success that we had to hire three buses for supporters to travel to watch them in Bonnievale earlier this year.”
Apart from Fortuin, Blanco has also produced another Springbok fullback in the form of Zane Kirchner, whose family home overlooks the field, while a new generation of up-and-coming players includes wings Dominic Fortuin – a relation of Bevin's – and Henswill Pedro, the club's leading try-scorer with 15 touchdowns.
Flanker Christo du Plessis is versatile enough to play inside centre, which he pulled off with aplomb last Saturday after an injury crisis hit the side, while flyhalf Daniel Roberts, 18, was called up by the Eagles to play a pre-season friendly last week despite still being at school.
“We've divided this season into three phases,” said Fortuin. “The first phase, which we've already achieved, was qualifying for the Club Champs. The second phase is to win the league, and the third phase is to do well at the Club Champs.
“But the most important thing of all is to build a bridge between the club and the community.”
Elsewhere around the country, Varsity Cup champions Tukkies will be fielding two different sides this week as they take on the arduous task of playing Harlequins in the Blue Bulls' Carlton league on Thursday night, and then travelling to Durban on Friday morning for their much-anticipated Champions' Challenge match against SA's number-one 'open' club, College Rovers.
The match takes place on Friday at Mr Price Kings Park (kick-off 17h00), as the curtain-raiser to the 'Barney's Army' charity match between the Sharks and a John Smit World XV. It will be the first time in 21 years that the Pretoria students play in KZN.
For fellow Varsity sides Wits, NWU Vaal, NWU Pukke and UJ, there were good victories over Alberton, Union, Roodepoort and Benoni respectively in the Predator Super League.
Club rugby in Eastern Province resumed after a week's break due to unseasonal weather, with Despatch beating nearest challengers for a Club Champs qualifying slot, PE Harlequins, 28-12 at the De Wet Stadium. Reigning champions Park lost 23-17 to Spring Rose, while unbeaten NMMU did Despatch a favour by edging arch-rivals SAPS 20-15.
Durban Collegians continued on their impressive streak, beating Harlequins 76-5 in the KZN Moor Cup, while College Rovers, with the likes of Sharks hooker Craig Burden in tow, had to pull out all the stops to beat an Old Boys team featuring Springboks Marius Joubert and Odwa Ndungane, 34-17.
And in the Western Province Super League A, Club Champs qualifiers Durbanville-Bellville's 74-12 victory over struggling Villager ensured that they not only finished the first half of the league unbeaten, but also leapfrogged Maties into top spot in the league.
Hamiltons' 50-5 victory over Belhar moved the 2009 national club champions into third place on the table, five points ahead of defending champions UCT and Stellenbosch's second team, Victorians, but nine points behind the leaders.
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