UP hosts Varsity Cup in ‘COVID-19 bubble’

Posted on May 28, 2021

How do you run one of the country’s biggest sporting events while the world is grappling with a pandemic that demands distance? TuksSport has achieved just this by hosting the Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield rugby competitions in a secure bio-bubble over an eight-week period – a task that demanded months of high-level collaboration between different parts of the University and the Varsity Cup organisers, working together to pull off what’s been an impressive and entertaining event.

Regarded as one of the best sporting competitions in South Africa, and the premier university rugby competition in the world, Varsity Cup, which started on 4 April and draws to a close on 31 May, is organised by Advent Sport Entertainment and Media (ASEM), a company headed by renowned retired SA rugby player Francois Pienaar.

Director Steven Ball takes us behind the scenes on the extensive planning that went into hosting this year’s Varsity Cup in a secure ‘bio-bubble’. 

“We were eager to get some form of competition into play for 2021, after last year’s cancellation due to the coronavirus lockdown,” said Xhanti-Lomzi Nesi, Varsity Cup Tournament Director and ASEM Head of Varsity Cup. “It needed to be approved by the Minister of Sport and SA Rugby and, having looked at various scenarios, we realised that the bubble format, which had started in different ways across the world, was our best option,” she said. This simple concept creates a defined space in which to control and create the least amount of risk for COVID-19 for a period of time.

The biggest issue was securing a location that would be able to house 380 students in the bubble over a 10-day period to accommodate the 10 Varsity Cup teams. “The risk with many of the suggested hosts was that multiple accommodation options were needed, which would weaken the integrity of the bubble, or insufficient fields for training and matches in a controlled location,” said Steven Ball, Director of TuksSport and member of the Varsity Cup Board. “At UP, we could manage it, provided the High Performance Centre (HPC) and Future Africa’s facilities could house players. It would also require the involvement of multiple departments, such as Security Services, Facilities Management, IT Services and the Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI), and first off, the approval by the University Executive and Workplace Safety Committee, who review COVID-19-related matters.”

After a massive drive from all sides, the FNB Varsity Cup kicked off on 4 April, with all 17 teams staying at UP’s “Varsity Cup Village”. During the tournament period, the FNB Varsity Cup alternated with the FNB Varsity Shield, with comprehensive broadcast coverage of the latter included for the first time. For the first time, all matches were broadcast live either on the normal SuperSport channels or via their new live-streaming alternatives. The tournament consisted of five separate bubbles, with teams playing three matches in 10 days. The size of the squad was increased to 30 to allow for replacements.

“It was a soft bubble, as we didn’t have the luxury of accommodating all the staff involved, so we made every effort to minimise contact – the use of pre-wrapped knives and forks, one person dishing up, etc. The players, management teams, referees and all those in the ‘red zone’ had to go through extremely strict COVID-19 protocols. They practised non-contact training right up until the four-week period preceding the tournament, and, once they started contact training, they were tested weekly by a Board-approved testing facility that was used throughout.

“The exciting part is that COVID-19 allowed us to explore options and find connection points that we never knew existed, across our broader organisation and externally. From enlisting IT Services to ensure wi-fi for students to continue their online studies, along with successful live streaming to SuperSport, through to reaching out to Loftus Versfeld [Stadium] to accommodate matches; it was about opening up conversations and looking to collaborate in a different space.”

Ball said that they were challenged in many ways. Chefs at Future Africa and HPC had to produce close to 1 200 meals a day, and the transport teams needed multiple systems in place, specifically on match days. “In many ways we had to think of new ways of doing old business,” he said. “From small things like how to schedule watering gaps so that our fields could recoup, through to how coaches had to condition and train teams ahead of entering the bubble; having to adapt led to innovation across many spheres. As it happened, the third bubble was delayed by a week when three players tested positive. “Knowing the risks involved, we had built in a buffer week to deal with unknowns,” Nesi explained. We had always intended to complete the tournament by the end of May, because of university exams in June.”

Ball added that players had to demonstrate an AQ (Adaptability Quotient), as well as exercise personal and collective responsibility. “I hope that these moments will shape their future behaviour in the workplace and in their lives. And isn’t that what university is about: teaching young people to think differently, to act differently, to do differently?”

With players having participated in their first students sports competition in more than a year, Ball said it was gratifying to see them doing what they love. “As the University of Pretoria, we put a stake in the ground to say, we want to see student sport being brought back in a responsible manner, and we will manage it appropriately; even if it means taking on what was the biggest global student competition in a bubble at the time. On behalf of TuksSport, we are extremely grateful to everyone at UP who played their part and I hope it gives us all faith that we can run towards problems, even if they are of epic proportions, such as a pandemic.”

- Author Department of Institutional Advancement

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