PURFC became the first Princeton rugby team ever to tour in South Africa in March 2017.  Thanks to the great support of parents and alumni, the organization of the team leadership, and the local knowledge afforded by MC Laubscher, the team embarked on a rigorous and culturally rich 9-day adventure.

Tour began at the Rugby Performance Center (RPC; http://www.rpcrugby.com/) at Riebeeck West, where the team attended training sessions led by Alan Zondagh, whose rugby background in South Africa and Europe is legendary.  The highlight of the training was a joint practice session with the South Africa Rugby Academy, a group of 55 residents at the RPC aspiring to become Springboks, the South African national team.  The residential program is directed toward identifying playing and coaching talent for the national sport from communities of color.

We were welcomed to the RPC with the traditional South African braai, a barbeque of epic proportions. The hospitality of Alan and his wife Lesley was outstanding throughout, and the team took full advantage afforded by this incredible opportunity.

It was not all heat, hard work, and rugby.  The team enjoyed a fabulous trip to the Aquila Game Reserve (http://www.aquilasafari.com/), where the touring party saw rhinos, hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, springboks and more in the wild.  One jeep witnessed an impressive contest between a mother rhino and an impertinent adolescent elephant.  That same elephant also took offense to the second PURFC jeep and inserted his trunk into the front seat to let us all know he would prefer to walk where the jeep was sitting.  Outstanding.

The final adventure in the Riebeck Valley was an afternoon visit to the Goedgedaght Community Program (http://www.goedgedacht.org/path-out-of-poverty), a local NGO serving rural children and families.  The team participated in games with a group of 40 children and youth, and later played touch rugby on mixed teams with them.  Special thanks to the Koranda family whose generous donation of traveling tour polo-shirts also included a set of tee-shirts, given as gifts to the children, celebrating “Making friends locally, making friends globally”.

After a few great days at RPC in the Riebeck Vally, PURFC moved on to the Stellenbosch Academy of Sports (SAS; http://www.sastraining.co.za/) for its second stop on tour in South Africa.

SAS is a professional sports training and preparation environment located in the Stellenbosch Winelands of the Western Cape. The academy is the permanent home of Western Province Rugby Institute and the South Africa Rugby Springboks 7’s, the Blitzboks. In the past, SAS has hosted visiting professional Rugby teams including Saracens and Pampas XV Argentina.

SAS housed many different elite athletic teams during PURFC’s stay but of most interest to the Princeton team was the Blitzboks.  The team was able to use the same facilities (weight room, pool, cafeteria, etc) as the likes of internationally known rugby stars such as Cecil Afrika (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Afrika).

Training took place on the nearby rugby grounds of Paul Roos School, a government boys’ high school that has produced a multitude of Springbok stars.  Paul Roos, a former captain of the Springbok rugby union team, was himself a former pupil and teacher at the school, and was the school’s rector from 1910 to 1940, after which the school was renamed in his honor.

The big tour match was played against Wilgenhof RFC, a residential college team part of Stellenbosch University Rugby Football Club (Maties).   Wilgenhof are one of the top teams in the 8 team Stellenbosch University the men’s residence Koshuisrugby rugby competition. Stellenbosch RFC is the largest club in the world and the Koshuisrugby competition is the largest component of the program.

The match was played in the renowned 16,000 seater Danie Craven Stadium.  Typically this stadium is used only by the Maties for the Varsity Cup matches, but special permission was granted for its use.

Wilgenhof lived up to their stellar rugby reputation and played great running rugby to win 66-14.  It was the most physical game Princeton has played in many years and exposed our players to rugby played at a different level to anything we usually experience in the USA.  Princeton fought hard throughout the game scoring two well-worked tries and coming very close to scoring two more. Many Princeton players commented after the match about how much they had enjoyed the game, as well as how much they had learned playing such a quality side.  Jack Bryan, playing at second row, was the PURFC man of the match.

The post-match celebration was held at the famous Wilgenhof Hall of Residence where the PURFC team was hosted to a traditional braai served in the old Wilganhof dining hall.  Players from both teams sat together with the entire Wilganhof student body in attendance.  Speeches were made, gifts exchanged, tee-shirts were traded as both teams enjoyed the post-game banquet.  It was a wonderful evening that will live long in the memories of all our PURFC South Africa touring squad.

PURFC made every effort to take advantage of the experiences afforded in culturally rich and naturally beautiful South Africa.  The very next day after playing an intense and hard-hitting rugby match against Wilganhof, the team boarded the bus to Cape Town.  First stop, Table Mountain!  http://www.southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/article-southafrica.net-table-mountain .

On time and eager to take in the breath-taking views, the team stood in line with countless other tourists from around the world as the Table Mountain safety crew decided if the gondolas could go up on the sunny, but windy day.  Alas, the first major disappointment of the tour occurred as the rides were suspended for the day.  The team did not lose heart but instead disbanded to explore the Victoria & Albert Waterfront and Table Bay Harbour in small groups.  http://www.southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/article-southafrica.net-the-va-waterfront

Tour members were encouraged to bring back souvenirs for friends but especially their parents, whose support made this entire tour a reality.

The team re-gathered in the afternoon and together boarded a ferry to Robben Island, which takes its name for the Dutch “seal island” and is a short 40-minute ferry ride from Cape Town. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and current President Jacob Zuma.

The entire prison is now a World Heritage site and former inmates lead the tours within the prison.  Conditions were brutally inhumane; torture took place.  These sad episodes are painfully recounted in inmates’ writings on the walls of cells and recordings of their voices.  Mandela’s extremely small cell is kept as a stark tribute to his ability to endure and move forward to begin the creation of the new South Africa.  http://www.robben-island.org.za/

In the evening, the Princeton Rugby Team shared its final dinner together in South Africa in a traditional South African restaurant on Long Street, noted for its elegant Victorian buildings with beautiful wrought iron balconies, shops, bookstores, and ethnic restaurants lining its path.

The following day the team flew back to Princeton with great memories of an incredible tour.

Richard Lopacki

Director of Rugby & Men’s Head Coach

Princeton University