The University of Cape Town (UCT) are gearing up for a titanic Varsity Cup opener against arch-rivals Stellenbosch on Monday, February 2 (kick-off 4.45pm), with head coach John Dobson declaring a ‘clean slate’ for his Ikey Tigers in 2009.
The Ikeys, under the tutelage of Dobson and backline coach Robbie Fleck, thrilled friend and foe alike in 2008 by very nearly claiming the first-ever Varsity Cup title.
But the Men from Cape Town – who lost just one match en route to topping the log after the league season – suffered a gut-wrenching final defeat to the self-same Maties; a result which everyone seems to be reminding them of ahead of the 2009 FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International.
Everyone except the UCT coaching staff that is… “It’s a new beginning for us,” said Dobson to www.varsitycup.co.za. “A lot has been said and written about the team from last year, but, truth be told, we’re a very different side (from last year).
“For starters, we’ve lost the Forward of the Tournament (Herbie Mayosi) and the Back of the Tournament (James Martin) from last year, as they’re both too old this season, and then there’s also no Mat Turner, who is now playing for Bristol, and, of course, Kyle Brown is now an SA Sevens player.
“I’ve said it before, we’re a victim of our own success, so instead of a few tweaks Fleckie and I have had to do an extreme makeover but it’s up to this new team to lay down a marker early on in 2009 and carve out its own niché.”
Aside from being without Mayosi, Brown, Martin and Turner, hard-working lock Mike Ledwidge has a serious back injury, hooker JP Koster has joined Maties, scrumhalf Danie van der Merwe is playing for Boland and exciting young centre Tim Whitehead has a groin injury.
However, it is not all doom and gloom in Cape Town, with Dobson able to rely on the services of regular skipper JJ Gagiano – who is back in country after playing Test rugby for the US Eagles late last year – and also Western Province Currie Cup flyhalf Matt Rosslee.
To top it all off, they Ikeys also strenghtened their coaching staff in the off-season, with Jake White and Bob Skinstad serving as technical advisors in 2009 and Professor Tim Noakes coming on board as the squad’s strategist.
“Guys like JJ and Matt are all a year older and wiser now,” said Dobson, who is also very excited at the prospect of seeing new signings Tiger Bax and Dane Johnson in action for the Tigers, as well as blooding some promising graduates from UCT’s U20 ranks.
“It’s hard to rebuild again,” he added, “but I think the success of the Varsity Cup and our progression to the final in 2008 has meant that the UCT production line and competition for places is very intense, which can only be a good thing.
“A big lesson we have taken from last year is that you literally have to plan ahead for more than just the one season… Whilst this year is obviously a big focus for us, we also have to keep an eye on 2010 at the same time.”
Looking ahead to the 2009 tournament, which many feel will be a close-run affair, Dobson said: “I think the opposition will watch us closely this year – no longer will we be considered a walking bonus point when the teams see UCT on the fixture list.
“I have no doubt that every team in the Varsity Cup has raised its game enormously and it will be a lot harder for us this year, but we’ve been working on some new stuff and I have every bit of confidence that we can cause some different surprises in 2009.
“2008 is something of the past. It was a great experience, and we, as coaches also learnt a helluva lot along the way. (But) we’ve got a new side and some new guys are desperate to show what they’re made of, which augurs well for this season.”
And speaking about Monday’s season-opener against the Maties, Dobson added: “To be honest, our only focus at this stage is on the first game. Yes, it happens to be a repeat of last year’s final, but we’re simply looking at it as our first game of a new season and, hopefully, another step in the direction in this new era for UCT rugby.”
* Meanwhile, the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) will be playing in a televised curtain-raiser to the Varsity Cup double header at UCT’s Groote Schuur fields on Monday, February 2.
Up-and-coming universities, Fort Hare and UWC, will lock horns at 12.45pm on Monday – the opening day of the 2009 FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International – before making way for Shimlas v NMMU at 2.45pm and the match of the day, UCT v Maties at 4.45pm.
Monday’s fixtures at Groote Schuur:
University of Fort Hare v UWC, 12.45pm
Shimlas v NMMU, 2.45pm
UCT v Maties, 4.45pm
* All matches will be televised live on SuperSport