New Impi head coach eyes Varsity Cup

2015-01-06 00:00

UKZN Impi begin their Varsity Shield campaign in just under a month and new head coach Ryan Strudwick has his eyes firmly set on bringing Varsity Cup to the province next year.

Strudwick, who was Maritzburg College’s director of rugby, Sharks U19 coach and University of KwaZulu-Natal Impi forwards coach last year, has taken over the reins from former All Black, Western Force and Lions coach John Mitchell.

Speaking to The Witness yesterday at the start of their January training camp at UKZN’s Westville campus, Strudwick expects a fresh challenge as head coach while dealing with a number of rule changes and new faces in the squad.

“Obviously there is a lot more responsibility being head coach, but it is the same team. The rule changes are the biggest hurdle and it could make it difficult to put a team together,” Strudwick said.

The 2015 Varsity Shield and Varsity Cup competitions are cutting back on the number of non-students in the various teams. According to Strud­wick, players need to study and pass in order to play in the competitions.

Furthermore, only four players who have enrolled in their first year of studies, but matriculated before 2014 will be eligible to play for a team on match days. This rule prevents teams from buying up older players from other universities or club sides.

Meanwhile, teams can field an unlimited number of first year students who matriculated at the end of 2014.

Despite the various curve balls, Strudwick’s squad already includes 20 registered students and he is expecting 12 contracted Sharks age-group players to register at the university and join the side.

The Sharks have given Strudwick a directive to bring Varsity Cup rugby (premier division) to the province.

“We want KZN to have a team in the Varsity Cup. It hasn’t been finalised yet, but the top two teams in this year’s Varsity Shield could gain automatic promotion to the Varsity Cup, so that is our goal,” he said.

With just a precious few weeks left to prepare for the competition, the side are focusing on game-related training this week.

“Everything is far more game related, by the end of the week we want to be match ready as we have a couple of warm-up matches against College Rovers and Durban Collegians before we take on University of the Western Cape in our first game of the tournament,” he said.

Their first opponents, University of the Western Cape, could pose the biggest challenge this year, but Strudwick is under no illusion that the other three teams will be walkovers. “It is a tough competition. There are no easy fixtures and all the teams have changed quite dramatically because of the rule changes. I do think UWC will be tough though, they have a lot more depth than we do.”

Impi fell agonisingly short of being promoted to the Varsity Cup last year — losing in the Shield final to Central University of Technology. They were then trumped by University of Johannesburg in the promotion/relegation clash last April.

“Our biggest problem was consistency. We had the team, but we let it slip and conceded some soft tries. If we can defend well, we should be able to contend for a top spot. It’s about building mental strength.”

On a personal note, Strudwick is excited to take over from Mitchell, who is one of the most experienced coaches in world rugby.

“Having Mitch around was fantastic, he was one of the main reasons I came on board last year. You cannot pass up the opportunity to work with someone like him. His experience and attention to detail is something I have never experienced before.”

Looking to the future, Strudwick hopes to continue his rise through the coaching ranks. If Impi earn promotion, Strudwick intends to be at the helm in next year’s Varsity Cup campaign. He will also take charge of the Sharks U21 side later this year.

The former lock played professionally for the Sharks and Griquas before moving to the United Kingdom and playing for London Irish for nine years.

UKZN Impi start their Varsity Shield campaign on February 2 against UWC in Cape Town. The game will be televised.

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