FNB CUT became the first team to lift the Varsity Shield when they overcame FNB Wits 25-18 in a tense final in Johannesburg on Monday evening.
It was the first Varsity Shield Final - this lively, energetic, unpredictable match, certainly not a dour final, not a war of attrition but a match for all players. In the end a mistake here, a bit of enterprise there was the difference between the two teams.
Visitors CUT started better and home side Wits finished better as they tried to fill in the seven-point gap.
CUT scored first when Alec Mhlanga rounded off a fine movement to cross for a try. Mhlanga also ended the scoring when he rounded off an energetic attack to score in the corner.
CUT scored three tries to two, one a gift that must have hit Wits in the solar plexus, an intercept by strong outside centre Jaco Oosthuizen, the man who 'made' the first try.
The remarkable feat of the players was the way they were able to overcome the massive penalty count (40) and still turn the match into a game of positive rugby.
Two of the CUT tries came from Wits line-outs pilfered. For the first try, they went right where Oosthuizen burst away from his opposite number and gave to fullback André le Roux on his right and he sent Mhlanga sweeping over towards the posts. Le Roux converted.
Brendan Lizamore and Le Roux exchanged penalties and then Wits got their first try, this time off a CUT error. They knocked on behind a tackle/ruck and David Turnbull snatched the ball up just inside his own half and away Wits went off. Turnbull gave to Greg Blom and the flyhalf sent lock Charles Baggott striding for a try near the posts.
That made it 10-8 to the visitors, from Bloemfontein, after 20 minutes.
Le Roux and then Lizamore kicked penalties but just before half-time CUT attacked the Wits line, bashing over and over after a break by Inus Kritzinger. But they lost the ball forward and Wits had a scrum. CUT put pressure on them and Turnbull tried to run out of trouble and indeed there was an overlap on his left. He passed, but straight to Oosthuizen who had two metres to go to score. 20-11, the half-time score.
Wits were much better in the second half, shucking off the hesitance that had characterised the early part of their game. They had two easy chances to kick penalty goals but opted to try for tries instead and bashed away but in vain. Their try by way of contrast came from far out and was brilliant.
Wits counter-attacked from near the halfway line. Riaan Arends got the ball a metre inside the CUT half and raced away on a swerving run, past four defenders for a try in the corner, which Lizamore converted.
It was the best bit of individualism of the match.
Now Wits were just two points behind with 23 minutes to play. Victory was a distinct possibility for the Johannesburgers.
But CUT won another Wits line-out and went left. They came back right and tall, skilled Jean Cook - he of SA Under-20 fame - drew a defender and sent Mhlanga over for his second try. 25-18 with 16 minutes to play.
The game got livelier and livelier as the home side strove for victory but in the end all the delight belonged to the Men from Bloemfontein.
They won the first-ever Varsity Shield. They won a lot - shield, gold medals, a team cheque for R150,000 and a chance to get into the Varsity Cup if they can beat TUT next Monday.
Their player, Alec Mhlanga was the Man of the Match - the Player that Rocks with the pink cap, the pink shorts, the pink cheque for R2,500 and the 50 pink roses for his girlfriend. And Gavin Annadale got the car for the weekend as the Hertz's Captain's Choice.
Not that Wits left empty-handed. They came away with a lot of credit, silver medals and a team cheque for R75,000 after a great first season of Varsity Shield rugby.
For FNB Wits:
Tries: Baggott, Arends
Pens: Lizamore 2
For FNB CUT:
Tries: Mhlanga 2, Oosthuizen
Cons: Le Roux 2
Pens: Le Roux 2
Wits: 15 Sean Manton, 14 Nkuli Gamede, 13 Brendan Lizamore, 12 Heinke Hartdegen, 11 Riaan Arends, 10 Greg Blom, 9 David Turnbull (captain), 8 Jason Fraser, 7 Devin Montgomery, 6 Ryan Odendaal, 5 Charles Baggott, 4 Ernest van Niekerk, 3 Paulo Ferreira, 2 Rory Anderson, 1 Katlego Kgame.
Replacements: 16 Tyrell Tintinger, 17 Brendan Whyte, 18 Katlego Ntsie, 19 Brent Crossley, 20 Clayton Redford, 21 Emmanual Mphande, 22 Rudolf Prinsloo, 23 Clayton Allem.
CUT: 15 Andre le Roux, 14 Alec Mhlanga, 13 Jaco Oosthuizen, 12 Maphelo Mpondo, 11 Nhlanganiso Sibanda, 10 Egan Gysman, 9 Inus Kritzinger (captain), 8 Juan Hugo, 7 Jean Cook, 6 Francois Harvey, 5 Gavin Annadale, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Werner Pretorius, 2 Deon Gouws, 1 Rudi Britz.
Replacements: 16 Trevor Nyakane, 17 Rudi Fuls, 18 Anton Smit, 19 Frans Sisita, 20 Noel Marx, 21 Leon Pretorius, 22 Frederick Badenhorst, 23 Petri Coetzee.
Referee: Gerrie de Bruin
Assistant referees: Pieter de Villiers, Stefan Breytenbach
TMO: Johann Meuwesen
By Paul Dobson (rugby365.com)