Fort Hare - Rugby - Varsity Shield preview

Fifteen of University of Fort Hare’s finest will run into a Tuks outfit ravenous for a return to the competition’s top tier in next Friday’s FNB Varsity Shield opener.

The Pretoria students were relegated to the Shield after an unprecedented campaign in which they, unbelievably, lost every single Varsity Cup game.

Even more astonishing was that they had come into the season as defending champions and hot favourites to lift the title.

Fort Hare found themselves in a similar position in 2023, having been crowned Shield champions the previous year. It ended up being an up-and-down few weeks for the Blues.

While they did well to reach the semifinals, their progress was stalled by the University of the Western Cape, who went on to secure the title and a spot in the 2024 Cup tournament.

There were times when UFH showed plenty of what has made them perennial Shield contenders, though.

There is no greater example than their do-or-die victory against Tshwane University of Technology.

Trailing the Vikings by two log points coming into that game, they produced arguably their best performance of the season to win 37-24 and book their place in the playoffs.

Fort Hare - Rugby - Varsity Shield preview

Fort Hare will aim for a flying start to their FNB Varsity Shield campaign when they take on UP-Tuks at home next week. Photo: Varsity Sports

The 45-0 demolition job of Rhodes earlier on was another highlight. After a slow first half in which they only managed to put 10 log points on the board, they shifted gear to decimate the men from Makhanda.

Their latest challenge for Shield honours starts under lights at the Davidson Stadium in Alice, where the Blues will hope to turn out a few of the visitors’ own in the early exchanges.

Rugby officer Mihlali Rodolo said the team had welcomed 10 new players into the fold. Despite having had to induct so many rookies into the system, she was happy with how the preparation had gone.

Off-season training kicked off as early as last November and the team returned to campus for pre-season sessions on January 5.

Victories in two friendlies – against Walter Sisulu University and Border Super League team Police – show that they are progressing in the right direction.

Tuks will have a target on their back when they make their first-ever appearance in the lower tier. In November, new coach Dewey Swartbooi acknowledged that they would be seen as the team to beat.

However, the experienced campaigner said he would not take anything for granted as he knew that they needed to be at their very best to win.

“Every team in the Varsity Shield competition is going to come for us. For them, it is about getting the bragging rights . . .

“Despite what happened [last season], Tuks is still considered one of the legendary teams of South African rugby.”

The contest for the Shield playoffs will be hotly contested this year.

Aside from Tuks, Fort Hare will face off against WSU, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Cape University of Technology, Madibaz, TUT and newcomers Varsity College.

Kick-off is at 7pm on Friday, February 23.