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Back You are here: Home Sports Rugby Kwa Zulu Natal Rugby: UKZN Rugby - A Sleeping Giant On The Rise
Friday, 11 April 2014 08:18

Rugby: UKZN Rugby - A Sleeping Giant On The Rise

There is something brewing in the structures of KZN rugby. An embarrassment of intellectual capital that, if harnessed correctly, could see the beginning of a golden dynasty the likes of which have not been seen since the ‘Team of the Nineties’ tag was achieved under the bastion of direct rugby, Ian McIntosh. John Smit, Jake White, Dr Sherylle Calder (as a consultant) and John Mitchell working in tandem is as unstoppable as a cohesive Sharks loose-forward trio and fans of the franchise have voiced their approval on social media platforms and at their local ticket office, judging by the steady improvement in gate attendances at Kings Park in 2014.    

 UKZN RugbyA significant contributor to the brains trust initially made his mark in another sport. A student of Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth, John Mitchell initially excelled at basketball; representing New Zealand Secondary Schools for four years and New Zealand Juniors for two. Despite such obvious talent, growing up in New Zealand leaves little place in the heart for much else besides rugby and he made his senior provincial debut for Waikato just a couple of years out of school. The athleticism transferred from his basketball days no doubt lent itself to his rapid progression as a blindside flank and lock, but it was as a Number Eight that he firmly established himself as household name. So prominent was his form with ball in hand that Mitchell went on to score more tries over three seasons than any other New Zealand First Division player; a feat that would be impressive in the modern game today; never mind how unusual it was in an age where the attitude of ‘a wing scoring in the corner is a good rugby try’ prevailed.

Between off-season stints in France and Ireland, John Mitchell scored an incredible 67 tries in 134 appearances for Waikato before hanging up his boots prior to the 1995 season. Victor over the much fancied Auckland in the Ranfurly Shield and inaugural NPC champions, he has been bestowed with the Number Eight jumper in Waikato’s Rugby team of all time and remains one of only three New Zealanders to have played for, captained and coached the All Blacks.    

A qualified Quantity Surveyor, holder of a Diploma in Sports Psychology from Newcastle College and a Postgraduate Certificate in Sports Management from the University of Leicester, it seems almost serendipitous that Mitchell would find himself heading up a tertiary institution in his new home province. An astute and beloved analyst on Supersport, he is ever the thinking man’s coach and has been tasked with overseeing the coaching, fitness and medical staff of the various UKZN campuses; as well as taking charge of the UKZN Impi Varsity Shield team. He is ably assisted by Butch James, Ryan Strudwick and Ryno Combrink; Sharks Junior Recruiter, Maritzburg College Director of Rugby and Michaelhouse Director of Rugby respectively.

What is clear by the presence of these various stakeholders is that the relationship between KZN schools, UKZN and the Sharks is developing to a place where all parties can pull in the same direction for the better of the game in the province. At the culmination of the Shield, James will work with the Sharks u19 squad and the school masters will return to their colleges; no doubt keeping an eye on potential talent for the Impi’s push for Varsity Cup promotion and a sustained effort to compete with the more established rugby-playing varsities in the country.

Whilst the younger generation may see the emergence of UKZN rugby as an upstart, the truth is that it boasts a proud history of producing leaders of the game. Tommy Bedford, Wynand Claassen, Craig Jamieson, Joel Stransky, Mark Andrews, Andrew Aitken, Gary Teichmann and John Smit all donned the colours of the then Natal University. After an admitted dip in student participation, the centenary celebrations of 2011 brought about a fresh spirit of refurbishment to both the clubhouses of the Howard College and Pietermaritzburg campuses; a recognition that a significant part of club rugby’s ability to attract both player and spectators is the social aspect and sense of community.

Challenges for the varsity are both geographical and a matter of school-leaver perception.

In the first instance, the logistics of having five dispersed campuses is a complex battle for squad composition, but this has been countered with the use of the Munster rugby model. The European superpower has long alternated between Cork and Limerick, with their squad being split between the two centres and coming together for captains’ runs and the match itself. This has been replicated in Durban and Maritzburg under the watchful eye of Mitchell, ensuring that standards and structure are maintained.

The second, more challenging battle has been the flight of KZN matrics to the Cape and Pretoria for their tertiary education; often due to a feeling that they need to head to the other side of the country to escape their perceived small towns. The schoolboy rugby talent in Pietermaritzburg and the KZN Midlands alone is awe-inspiring and gleefully welcomed by universities outside of the province. With that said, the trend is shifting to an attitude of ‘bring them home and keep them home’. Today, a strong UKZN squad features Old Boys from some of the leading schools in the province and with the increasingly promising relationship of respect and open communication between the Sharks, KZN schools and UKZN itself; it seems a matter of time before the Impi takes its rightful place amongst the leading lights of varsity rugby.

The unfortunate result in the promotion/relegation game versus UJ was a stumbling block, but the process of building a dynasty is a long one, requiring patience in developing sustainable structures before long-term success may be achieved. Regardless of the fact that UKZN are not yet in the top tier of Varsity rugby; their rapid rate of progression is worthy enough for celebration of bright days ahead.