Not many would have bet on the University of Fort Hare’s men’s team returning from Kimberley with silverware after losing three players to injury midway through the University Sports South Africa (USSA) Sevens tournament.
In a competition where numbers are limited to 12 per squad, the odds of winning a trophy with a quarter of the players on the crock list are not exactly overwhelming.
But, thanks to some imaginative coaching and even more grit, Fort Hare came back to Alice as the 2023 USSA Shield champions.
While the trophy may not be as prestigious as the main USSA Sevens Cup, where UFH were knocked out in the quarterfinals, it still speaks volumes about the calibre of player the university has on its books.
Fort Hare ran riot against Sol Plaatje University in the Shield semifinal to register a 40-0 victory before downing Eastern Cape rivals Rhodes 15-12 in the final.
“Winning a trophy is always a good thing, especially with a group that only had two-and-a-half weeks to prepare,” coach Sive Maxham said.
“Sevens is very different to the 15-man game and requires you to be well conditioned. Winning the Shield was because of that hard work.”
Being three players short meant that Maxham had to rotate his charges wisely as they battled in the Kimberley heat. With only two players on the bench, it was no easy task.
Sadly, Fort Hare’s women suffered an even worse fate in terms of injury, as two concussions, a broken shoulder and another less serious injury put paid to their chances in the Cup quarterfinal.
They still ended a very credible seventh overall, however.
Maxham, who is Fort Hare’s backline coach in the 15-a-side men’s game, was a proud man afterwards as it had been the first outing at a major sevens event for several of his players.
He said Aphiwe Sidloyi, who also played at last year’s USSA 7s, had been inspirational throughout the weekend.
“He was instrumental in managing the games. He was the main organiser,” the coach explained.
“His communication was good with and without the ball, both on attack and defensively.”
Maxham hoped that the sevens squad would get more opportunities to play throughout the year as apposed to only at the back-end of the season.
Doing well at the USSA tournament could see a team qualifying for the national Varsity Sevens. In fact, had 2023 been a qualifying year, Fort Hare would have found themselves playing in that competition next season.
Sevens was now a speciality sport, as proved by the Blitzboks on the international stage, and Maxham felt being able to draw from a wider pool of players would place the university in good stead for the future.
He suggested programmes giving rural communities access to sevens rugby at Fort Hare might be one way of achieving this.
Women’s coach Lakhe Langa was understandably disappointed that injuries prevented his side from going further but praised them for their never-say-die attitude.
“They are very good players. They gave their best. We had one player on the bench and still managed to win games,” he said.
Langa believed that in the future it would serve Fort Hare well to have 15 travelling players so that the additional players could come into the squad of 12 should anyone get injured.