Club rugby in Bloemfontein is dominated by the Free State capital’s two university teams, Shimlas and CUT, but one so-called ‘open’ club have an ambitious goal of matching their student rivals in the years to come.
Crusaders were formed in 1992 and, like many post-unity clubs, are an amalgamation of a number of community clubs who played under various bodies. Two decades later, the club, situated in the sprawling suburb of Heidedal, east of the city centre, have firmly established themselves in the City League.
And while the side cannot match the likes of Shimlas and CUT Ixias on the field just yet (they lost 89-21 and 43-22 respectively in the first round), Crusaders have set themselves the goal of qualifying for the Club Championships in the near future.
“Bloemfontein Police are the favourites to represent Free State this year but we have ambitions to be there in the near future,” said Crusaders’ vice-chairman, Ernest Beck. “We have lost twice to them this year but both by narrow margins (10-14 and 13-27 last Saturday) but the club is healthy and we’re beginning to attract more players.”
Crusaders, who play out of the Clive Solomon Stadium, which hosted a Vodacom Cup match earlier this season, currently field three senior sides, with the likes of former Cheetahs wing Eddie Fredericks ensuring that their top-flight experience is passed down to the next generation of players.
“The universities are dominating at present, that is true,” said Beck. “But I’m hopeful that clubs such as Crusaders, Police and even our neighbours, Mangaung, will be able to field competitive sides in the near future.
“What we’ve done at the club is ensure that it’s a place where players and their families can feel welcome. Unlike many clubs, we don’t pay our players. We encourage them to play for the badge, and instead we use what funds we do get to improve the facilities and make it a place where people can get together.”
Elsewhere around the country, Sishen will host neighbours Kuruman in the Griqualand West Super League final on Saturday (kick-off 16h00) after both clubs booked their spots with convincing victories just a few kilometres apart on the final weekend of round-robin action.
Sishen, who set an early pace which none of their rivals could match, travelled the 202km from Kathu to Upington last weekend, where they beat bottom-placed United 76-3 to ensure top spot and hosting rights for the final. Kuruman, meanwhile, had to beat second-placed Upington Dorp to reach the final. The team duly ran out 50-13 victors – no mean feat after travelling 265km across the vast Northern Cape province.
Kuruman will be hoping that 2012 is their year, after the team went through the league stages unbeaten last year but lost the final, at home to Kimberley Police, in bizarre circumstances, via a penalty shootout – the first in South African rugby history. Interestingly, the rules for Saturday's final remain unchanged, so Kuruman will want to ensure that the scores aren’t deadlocked after extra time, as they were in 2011.
On the East Coast, the country’s leading non-university club, College Rovers, shook off their shock defeat to Durban Collegians – which halted a three-year, 56-match unbeaten run in KZN competitions – with an 80-0 thrashing of Varsity Shield side UKZN Pietermaritzburg.
Rovers will now switch their attention to the upcoming Champions’ Challenge festival match against Varsity Cup champions Tuks. The match, which has the backing of SARU as well as the KZN and Blue Bulls Rugby Unions, takes place on Friday 22 June 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.
“A match between the Varsity Cup champions and the country's best so-called ‘open’ club is like an unofficial heavyweight title bout and it’s a game which many people have been calling for,” said SARU CEO Jurie Roux. “We fully support this initiative to promote club rugby because providing non-university clubs in particular with increased exposure and better competitive platforms is one of SARU's priorities.
“We have been working closely behind the scenes with provinces and clubs across the country over the past year to chart a way forward,” added Roux. “This year’s National Club Championships in Rustenburg will feature non-university clubs only and is the first step along that path. We look forward to making further announcements later this year.”
And in Eastern Province, the Grand Challenge race was blown wide open after Despatch ended NMMU’s unbeaten run with an 18-16 victory. The concurrent race for Club Champs qualification also intensified after African Bombers pipped PE Harlequins 18-15 and Gardens edged Spring Rose 23-18.
Up north, Varsity Cup champions Tuks made it eight from eight in the Blue Bulls’ Carlton League after racking up a 102-5 victory over Oostelike Eagles. There were also some big scores posted in the central regions, Shimlas hammering arch-rival CUT’s 2nd team 91-3 in the Bloemfontein City League.
And in Gauteng, there were important wins for Wits (36-34 over NWU Vaal) and Brakpan (47-18 over Pirates) in the Predator Super League. UJ remain top after a convincing 40-7 win over the Lions’ Club Champs front-runners, Roodepoort, while national club champions, NWU Pukke, followed up their 42-all draw against Wits a few weeks back with yet another high-scoring deadlock, this time 36-all against Club Champs 2012 hosts, Rustenburg Impala.
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