By Richard Anderson
The South African rugby season officially got underway with the Varsity Cup's opening fixtures earlier this month. Stellenbosch (Maties), the University of Cape Town (UCT) and six others clashed in the first of seven round-robin fixtures before the semi-finals in late March.
Critics of the Varsity Cup are few and the praise from most quarters is high indeed. There's little doubt that the participants are drawing fans and players away from the sub-provincial club leagues (in which they also take part), which is not entirely healthy for the SA game overall.
But with SA's provincial and franchise game in turmoil following the farcical decision to grant the Southern Kings Super Rugby status, nearly everyone is looking at the Varsity Cup as a lifeline for rugby, a competition full of fun, excellent rugby, big noisy crowds, and promising talents for the future. At sub-provincial level, the Varsity Cup is rapidly becoming the future.
So while there have been grumpy murmurings about the teething troubles suffered by the College Premier Division (now theD1-A) in the U.S., it is undoubtedly still the concept the USA, in the absence of provincial competition or a meaningful top-level club competitions, should be looking at.
Aside from the teams involved being the best of the colleges in the country, one of the big successes of the Varsity Cup has been off the pitch. Maties regularly pack out the Danie Craven stadium with 14,000 people, nearly all of them passionate Maties students. Crowds for the other teams are smaller, but no less fervent.
The U.S. college and university system bring with it their own identity - essentially, they are a vast rugby club waiting to happen. Students generally need little encouragement to go don the college scarf, sink a few pints and cheer on the college team. The organisers of the Varsity Cup quickly realised this and tapped into it, using all sorts of gimmicks to create off-field fun and help the youngsters get involved. Bingo! Big crowds looking for the fun and ready to roar for their college's success. Both in South Africa and in the USA, rugby clubs just don't create that sense of belonging any more - not outside the changing room anyway.
The other big trick pulled by the Varsity Cup organisers was to stage the games on Monday nights. It thus competes with no other sport for supremacy in any schedule, TV or otherwise, not does it compete with any other rugby fixture - indeed, Monday nights had hitherto been one of the deadest sporting nights in SA. Now it is, to pretty much everyone, Varsity Cup night.
A writing counterpart of mine made an excellent point a week or so ago, pointing out how well an independent company did in taking on the task of creating a superb Vegas Sevens; about how that company took away from USA Rugby the onerous tasks of drumming up support and razzmatazz and let the governing body carry on governance. You need a businessman's approach to make a tournament a success, and USA Rugby's approach - by definition - needs to be that of government, not business.
With the Vegas Sevens now becoming a major success, with the Varsity Cup in South Africa presenting a working business model full of innovations, and with College rugby undoubtedly moving to the forefront of USA Rugby's consciousness because of the well of athletes to be tapped into, perhaps it is time to make this move: sell the rights to College Rugby to an innovative promoter who could realise its full potential.
College sport is still the biggest party going, college rugby is still the USA's largest section of playing membership. Isn't it time USA rugby found a way of marrying those two facts and letting someone create a college championship with a bit more fizz? In South Africa, it's creating a new generation of players.
Gilbert has released a new line of rugby cleats. The Gilbert Virtuo 8S is part of the exciting new product. Check it out.
The entire All Blacks apparel line has been updated for 2013/14. Check out the New Zealand All Blacks polo.
The Nike Tiempo is a solid rugby cleat and one of few styles still made from full-grain natural leather.
The Gilbert Blitz 8S rugby cleat is a great cleat at a great price of $69.99. Get a new pair of cleats today.
A cool looking all black rugby cleat with the high performance adidas is known for. Get in the Gear!
Wear the crest of the British and Irish Lions on your t-shirt. A great look for the summer.
The All Blacks Performance t-shirt is black with hints of blue from the training jersey. Very Cool.
The New Zealand All Blacks training jersey for 2013/14. Get in the Gear!
The USA Rugby Pro Alternate rugby jersey is perfect for any fan of the Eagles. Get yours to wear during the summer Test matches.
The NEW All Blacks 2013/14 jersey has arrived at World Rugby Shop. Dare to wear the colors of the All Blacks.