Varsity Cup players embrace Covid-19 bio-bubble life
University teams take the pandemic protocols in their stride.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
On their sixth night in the biosecure bubble at the University of Pretoria (Tuks), known as the Varsity Cup Village, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Ikey Tigers held a “Varsity Cup’s Got Talent” competition. There was singing, guitar-playing and a lot of laughing as four UCT teams – the tight-five forwards, loose forwards, inside backs and outside backs – took each other on. (For the record, the outside backs won.)
The night before, UCT had beaten Wits in their round-two match at nearby Loftus Versfeld, before returning to Tuks’ Future Africa campus, which is hosting eight of the 10 Varsity Cup teams (Tuks and the University of Johannesburg are staying at the Tuks High Performance Centre, or HPC).
Teams are kept in separate “pods” while in the village and are not allowed to interact with each other on non-match days.
Under head coach Tom Dawson-Squibb, who has a degree in sports psychology and is also the Stormers’ leadership and performance coach, UCT have taken a unique approach to this year’s Varsity Cup, which is being played across three bubbles from 4 April to 24 May at three venues (Tuks Stadium, the Tuks B-Field and Loftus).
“Tom has done really well to create a balance between rugby and disconnecting from rugby,” says UCT captain Liam Greenhalgh.
“Other teams have trained every day, but the day after a game we don’t even talk about rugby until 5pm, when we have a brief meeting. We don’t do anything the following morning either and only train again that afternoon. So we have a lot of spare time to study or just switch off from rugby.”
This is to ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of the Ikey Tigers, who played three matches in eight days during the first bubble before returning to Cape Town. The second bubble will be from 22-30 April (rounds four to six) and the third from 10-16 May (rounds seven to nine). The top four teams on the log will remain in the third bubble for the playoffs.
Conquering the enigma
It’s a tough tournament format for the players, but one they have embraced.
When the Varsity Cup board met in October last year, plan A was to hold a normal Varsity Cup in 2021 – with a home and away league stage – but without fans. However, by the time they reconvened in early February, having consulted with the universities, a bio-bubble format was the preferred option.
“We called it Project Enigma,” says Varsity Cup tournament director Xhanti-Lomzi Nesi. “There were all these moving pieces. Some of the coaches have full-time jobs, so how do they get leave to come into a bio-bubble? Some students have tutorials and medical students need to do practical sessions. We played around with dates and formats before deciding upon this format, which works for everyone.”
The players who spoke to DM168 certainly weren’t complaining.
“The accommodation has been phenomenal and everything has been so well organised,” says North-West University Eagles centre Conan Le Fleur, adding that they had. “adapted to the situation and are thankful to be here… When we’re not training or playing, we watch TV in the team room or play soccer or putt-putt. The guys enjoy each other’s company.”
Tuks captain Sango Xamlashe says his team couldn’t have been better prepared mentally going into the first bubble.
“JL de Jager, our life coach, prepared us for every situation, on and off the field. He spoke to people who had been in bubbles to find out what challenges they had faced.
“Our coaches then modified certain things in and around training so that we were always expecting the unexpected. For example, they would suddenly make us train while wearing face masks for part of a training session. They taught us not to react negatively to a situation like that.”
All Varsity Cup teams have access to the HPC gym. While most of the teams staying at Future Africa like to walk the 1.8km, the Eagles prefer to travel by car instead of putting extra mileage on their feet.
Bookings ensure the staggering of players in the gym. Face masks have to be worn at all times, with equipment sanitised before and after use, while each player has his own aluminium water bottle, with no sharing of bottles allowed.
Teams have three meals a day in the common dining area on a rotational basis, with the Future Africa dining area split into three separate spaces and the HPC dining area into two.
Greenhalgh says the Future Africa caterers were initially caught off guard by their guests’ healthy appetites.
“Rugby players have to consume a lot of calories, so while it’s important to eat the right food, you also need to eat the right volume of food. Future Africa is a res and it was obvious that they hadn’t catered for rugby players before! There wasn’t enough food at first but that was quickly rectified.”
There are dedicated study areas and after each bubble, students return to their universities for in-person tutorials, practicals and tests. “Most of us used our free time in the first bubble to study,” says Xamlashe.
Varsity Cup players and management have to adhere to SA Rugby’s Covid-19 protocols while in the village. They were tested weekly for Covid-19 in the month preceding the tournament as well as two days before entering the first bubble.
“When you’re in the bubble, you’re okay,” says Greenhalgh. “It’s when you are home, between bubbles – around family and friends – that you have to be careful, so that you make it into the next bubble. We had the whole pre-season to learn about the Covid protocols and what happens if there’s a positive case.”
That person would have to isolate for 10 days, with isolation facilities being provided by the tournament organisers. If their next test is negative, they will be allowed to re-enter the village.
Should a Varsity Cup participant be “red-flagged” and then test negative for Covid-19, they will remain in isolation for 72 hours before being tested again. If that test is negative, they will be allowed back into the bubble. If it’s positive, they will have to isolate for 10 days.
As far as match days are concerned, Varsity Cup teams have had to adapt to playing in an empty stadium with no fans cheering them on.
“It is quite difficult, but I got used to it last year when I played for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup,” says Le Fleur. “It’s nothing new, it’s becoming normal.”
Greenhalgh also isn’t fazed by the absence of the famous Varsity Cup student vibe.
“I’m used to playing without fans because that’s the case for a Wednesday night league game [in Western Province’s club tournament]. In a way, it takes the pressure off you and it also levels the playing field as you don’t play against Maties [Stellenbosch University] with 16,000 fans behind them!”
Xamlashe says splitting the tournament into three bubbles has made all the difference.
“One long bubble would have been hell. Being able to leave the village after the first bubble [for 11 days] before returning for the second enabled us to relax and recharge.
“It’s also not the first time the boys had been away from friends and family for a week or so as most of them played at the U18 Craven Week or Academy Week. For me, being in the bubble feels like high school all over again.” DM168
WHAT PLAYERS EAT
Protein eaten by Varsity Cup players in 12 days:
- Beef boerewors (150g) 50kg
- Beef lean mince (no fat) 440kg
- Beef sausage (80g) 401kg
- Beef club steak (150g) 150kg
- Beef stew 146kg
- Sirloin on bone portions 101kg
- Beef topside 436kg
- Burger patties (160g) 299kg
- Chicken fillet 650kg
- Chicken leg quarters 630kg
- Chicken sausage (80g) 340kg
- Chicken thighs supreme 460kg
- Total: 4,103kg
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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