Varsity Match 2022: Suwi Chibale brings hard edge to Cambridge University RUFC after following in father’s footsteps at Queens’ College
When you meet Suwi Chibale off the pitch, it is difficult to imagine that it is the same player as the one donning Cambridge University’s No 13 jersey at Twickenham in the Jefferies Varsity Match on Saturday, April 2 (kick off 3.30pm).
A charming, affable and personable character who is instantly easy to warm to and talk with, and it seems at odds with the on-field persona.
In two academic years with the Light Blues, the 27-year-old has created a trademark as a hard-running, no-nonsense, big ball-carrying centre, who is prepared to metaphorically run through a brick wall for the team.
Perhaps you could say it is the soft centre with a hard edge.
He is studying for a masters in social innovation at Queens’ College, looking at how to improve scholarship programs in Model C schools in South Africa, and is following in some family footsteps.
His father, Prof Kelly Chibale, studied a PhD in chemistry at Queens’ from 1989 to 1992 on the Cambridge Livingstone Trust scholarship, and so attending the University of Cambridge was an aspiration for the younger Chibale.
He has taken a somewhat circuitous route to East Anglia, having done an undergraduate and honours degree at the University of Cape Town, and a masters at Edinburgh University.
Old Blue James Kilroe, who played for Cambridge in the 2015 Varsity Match, is a friend of Chibale’s and put him in contact with the club, and it was when playing for the Steele-Bodger XV in 2019 that he met now joint-chair of CURUFC Nick Koster, who also did the social innovation course at the Judge Business School.
“Nick Koster captained the team in 2018 and is a good friend so we spoke about the course,” says Chibale.
“It fitted well and my approach to university has always been that it is a place to learn transferable skills. What you study is not necessarily what you end up doing, but you learn some really good skills.”
Chibale has also found that combining playing and studying helps to add structure to a day.
“The rugby environment is pretty constant everywhere because everyone is quite like-minded,” he adds.
“The guys are fantastic, everyone is so friendly. You have chats after training and the guys are doing all these wild and wonderful subjects of Cambridge, of classics and mediaeval languages, it’s just quite foreign to what we have in South Africa.”
The experience in Chibale’s first year at Cambridge was very different. With the lockdowns necessitated by the Covid pandemic, and the delayed return of rugby – which eventually led to the Varsity Match being contested at Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road under adapted laws – it was far from the norm.
The friendship bonds that were forged, though, were just the same.
“There were quite a few post-grads in the team that were more or less the same age so we ended up spending quite a lot of time together,” he explains.
“When everyone went home, they couldn’t come back for the Lent Term last year, we stuck together and became really good friends. That translated for us into the experience.”
Those players will be in the hearts and minds of those returning this year, when Chibale makes a first trip to England Rugby’s HQ.
“I’ve never actually been to Twickenham Stadium, not even as a fan, so it will be great to be there,” he says.
“It will be a good way to get there, representing Cambridge. I’m really looking forward to it, really excited – motivated and excited.”
But it is about far more than the result for the South African, it has been about being able to experience everything that Cambridge has to offer and building up friendships that will last a lifetime.
“There is a video on YouTube that describes the Varsity Match in 2003 and you go through that journey and see how much it means to people, how many people are there, and these last two weeks when there are so many extra events,” Chibale says.
“You think this is incredible, when do I get another chance in my life to get to be in a team like this where we’re all focused on the same thing, we all really care about each other and we want to go and win, but also get to remember everyone that has come before.
“I think that’s so important because when you can identify with the story you feel part of the story, even though you’re writing your own one.
“That’s been one of the greatest things in getting to be at this university.”