NWU may have bowed out of the Varsity Cup competition in the semi-finals, but things didn’t get easier for them as they faced their biggest challenges in the domestic league.
The conclusion of the 2019 Varsity Cup saw 95% of the NWU squad move on to play for the Leopards, leaving the university first team without their first choice players heading into the Pirates Grand Challenge competition.
NWU won the competition in 2017 and 2018, so there has always been an expectation for them to be competitive and win games. Coach Burger van der Westhuizen said that he doesn’t feel the pressure that comes with being reigning champions, but as a coach you never want to lose. For Van der Westhuizen the Grand Challenge is an opportunity to make players better and see them into the Varsity Cup squad if possible.
A strong first round was followed by a challenging USSA tournament, so NWU took the second round of the Pirates Grand Challenge fixtures as they came, treating every game as just as important as the next. They ended the second round having only suffered one defeat to Wits, but managed to finish six points clear of them at the top of the log. The conclusion of the Currie Cup First Division competition saw experienced Varsity Cup players Marius Stander, Reuben du Plooy, Eugene Hare, Robert Hunt and Nkululeko Mcuma return to the bench to bolster the university side as they headed into playoffs.
NWU played some of the most exciting rugby in the semi-final, and a mammoth defensive effort saw them hold off Roodepoort to a 41-16 win, giving them the confidence boost they needed heading into the final. The final was played against a hungry Wits side at Alberton Rugby Club, where NWU got off to a slow start and trailed 29-12 at half time. The forward pack brought them back into the game in the second half and, although they fought for the full eighty minutes, it was Wits who won 36-33 to claim the title.
Coach van der Westhuizen lauded his troops, despite the final loss: “I told ex Varsity Cup player Duren Fillies that he just needed to play four games for me. He started and he nearly died but he was one of the best players in the final because he’s got the experience, knowledge and know-how. It was sad to lose in the final, but they are a fantastic bunch of boys. They manned up and they played.”
Reflecting on the past few months of hard work, Coach van der Westhuizen added that, “It was a difficult season, hugely challenging. Some players left, some were injured, one had a cancer scare and others lost their fathers. Altogether it was a very disruptive year for getting a team together, but in the end it was fantastic to play in a final and it’s a pity we couldn’t pull it through.”
NWU are set to kick off their 2020 Varsity Cup campaign on Monday, 3 February.