In 1859, Sir George Gray allocated a piece of ground at the top of Government Avenue to the College (The South African College, The SACs) which was known as ‘The Paddock’, to the students for their recreation. The gate to the paddock had to remain closed otherwise the cows who shared this facility with the students would wander off!
In 1882 the first rugby team was fielded and competed against Hamilton, Villager and Diocesan College. In 1883 the SACs went to Stellenbosch, by cart, fore the first time and won the informal match by 3 tries to nil. The formal Intervarsity rivalry (or inter-Collegiate as it was known then), dates back to 1911 and the first match was won 9 – 0 by the SACs, played in the hills of the Papagaaiberg. Since then there have been 96 Intervarsities and while Stellenbosch are well ahead in the overall count it remains, perhaps increasingly, closely contested and as the great Ikey Cecil Moss said “whatever anyone says, there is only one Intervarsity, when the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch meet on the rugby field’. Indeed it has been perhaps the most famous amateur game in the history of rugby, rivalled only by the Oxford – Cambridge Varsity Match.
The first Springbok team, selected in 1891 to play the touring British Lions included 3 Ikeys. More than 60 Springboks later the 2019 Rugby World Cup winning team also contained 3 Ikeys, including its inspirational captain Siya Kolisi (who was a member of club but was called up to the Stormers just before he was due to play his first game for us).
In 1918 the South African College changed its name to the University of Cape Town . At the same time, Victoria College. became the University of Stellenbosch. The first game played as such was a 0 – 0 draw played at Stellenbosch.
In the 1910s the “Ikey” nickname originated, applied to UCT students by the students of Stellenbosch University, because of the supposed large number of Jewish students at UCT. It refers to a silly verse, which started “Ikey Moses, King of the Jews….”. The UCT SRC did not like the name because of the anti-semitic slant and in fact protested in 1920 and 1921. A meeting to discuss the matter with the Stellenbosch SRC in 1921 never took place because the trains didn’t run on Fridays! There were sporadic protests in the 1930s but despite being born of some contempt the name stuck and was ultimately adopted by its target. The tiger stripes of the famous blue and white hoops have led to the nickname the “Ikey Tigers”.
In 1928 the University relocated from the Hiddingh Campus in Town to the Groote Schuur campus and the Groote Schuur field, seemingly little changed since those days, beautifully situated beneath the slopes of Devils Peak have become known as the “Green Mile” and its famous wind has proved the demise of many visiting fair-weather opponents.
As with all aspects of South African life, politics has always been a part of UCT Rugby. In WW2 there was a major rift in South African rugby, with provinces and clubs splitting on disagreement on South Africa’s participation on the side of the Allies in the war against Nazi Germany. UCT was not immune with the ‘Groote Schuur Club’, formed by dissident UCT anti-Allied war players, breaking away only to be disbanded in 1944.
More recently, in the early 1970s as the divisions in South African society, and sport became more contested, UCT canceled Intervarsity from 1973 to 1975 because of the refusal of Maties, with the support of the then South African government, to allow us to select black players but even more egregiously, to even allow black players to sit on the ‘white’ stands. Intervarsity was reinstated in 1976 (with a famous UCT victory) on the relaxation of this restriction. Interestingly this also led indirectly to the first interracial rugby game in post WW2 South Africa as UCT students hosted a black rugby team as opponents to replace Intervarsity – driving through a loophole that prevented the South African government from imposing itself on private UCT property.
While the Ikeys continued to prosper, the Maties became a giant of South African and indeed world club rugby and as a consequence, while Intervarsity was always closely contested and the occasion filled Newlands and the Dance Craven, Ikeys victories in Intervarsity in the 70s, 80s and 90s became a rarity. Famous victories in 1976, 1990 and 2004 were exceptions. Intervarsity unfortunately declined in importance after in the mid 1990s with changes brought about by the political transition in South African and the advent of professionalism in rugby. More recently the rivalry with the Maties, always smouldering, has been revived in the Varsity Cup.
The arrival of professionalism after the 1995 Rugby World Cup has presented challenges to the Ikey Tigers as it has to many other amateur student clubs. Gone are the days of up to 10 Springboks playing on either side in Intervarsity, and students facing current provincial and international players on alternate Saturdays at Newlands. In addition, while “koevertjies” of cash had been a factor in South African club rugby for many years, the absence of any rules enforcing amateurism in club rugby (or indeed student rugby) have meant that teams that do not pay their players (like the Ikeys) have a disadvantage. The period from 1995 to 2008 was a difficult adjustment but thanks to the Varsity Spirit and the efforts of a few dedicated supporters, the Ikeys survived and always retained its Super A league status.
All this changed in 2008 with the launch of the precursor to the Varsity Cup. The brainchild of 1995 RWC winning Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, the Varsity Cup is now the world’s pre-eminent student rugby tournament and a feature of South African Rugby. UCT was originally included as the ‘token’ English university and 8th seeds, with most pundits expecting quick relegation. Despite this, the Ikey Tigers promptly topped the first log table, made 3 of the first 4 finals and won in 2011 and 2014. Our success continues as perennial challengers.
While participation and success brings its own burdens, particularly the financial burden of funding scholarships and professional level coaching and administration, Varsity Cup has opened up huge rugby and life opportunities for the Ikeys. It has also in its own way brought back the joy of touring.
The best of these tours have been the trips to Oxford and then to Japan to participate in the World University Championship Invitation Tournaments in 2015 and 2019, joining the rugby teams of the worlds most prominent ‘rugby’ universities like, Oxford, Trinity College Dublin, Sydney, Bordeaux and an NZ Universities selection. The growing strength of UCT rugby and the depth of South African student rugby have been shown by the Ikeys being twice (and undefeated) champions.
The future will not doubt bring its challenges but also its great opportunities and the Ikeys will continue to strive for adventure, joy, friendship and success.