The tenth edition of the FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International, saw many great highlights once again. For FNB Wits, it will be a tough one to top in terms of memories, as they managed to pick up their first win in the competition’s history. The men from Johannesburg went on to pick up a further three more wins, but unfortunately fell just short of qualifying for the semi-finals.
A look back at the season, saw FNB Wits welcome FNB Shimlas to the Wits Rugby Stadium for the first clash of the season. The Witsies looked a different outfit to seasons gone by, but unfortunately the sheer experience of FNB Shimlas saw them win the match inside the last five minutes, where FNB Wits seemed to nap in some of the games they lost throughout the season.
FNB Wits will feel they could have won the battle against the FNB Shimlas, which would have possibly sent them through to the semi-finals. Many of the young FNB Wits members from the Lions youth set up were, however, still unavailable for selection at this stage. Players such as Wandisile Simelane, Gianni Lombard and Manuel Rass to name a few, who played massive roles in seeing FNB Wits through the season with a few vital wins.
The second game saw the Witsies travel to Stellenbosch to lock horns with this seasons finalists FNB Maties. Again this fixture was a tight one, with the hosts holding a slender 6-5 lead at half-time. The game saw FNB Wits make too many mistakes that eventually saw FNB Maties seal it 26-14. The second half performance again let the Johannesburg men down, when they let it slip once more.
The Witsies, however, had to wait until week three, to seal a historic first-ever win in the Varsity Cup, when they hosted FNB CUT. The game was thoroughly dominated by FNB Wits from start to finish, eventually running out 43-3 winners. This would be what the Witsies needed for the rest of the season.
FNB UP-Tuks was next on the radar, in the epic Juskei derby. The men from Pretoria were, however, too strong for the Witsies, notching up 10 unanswered points in the second half to seal off a 25-9 victory on their backyard.
FNB Wits were then faced with the daunting task of having to win their remaining games in order to qualify for the semi-finals. Last season’s champions FNB Pukke, were next for the men in blue. The game saw FNB Wits travel to Potchefstroom without their captain and flyhalf Warren Gilbert, who was out due to injury.
In stepped Constant Beckerling as captain, who got the men fired up from the start ahead of the big clash. FNB Wits trailed the hosts for the majority of the game, but a big second half effort from Beckerling and his men saw the Witsies steal a vital 22-13 win, which put them in great stead for progressing beyond the round robin phase of the tournament for the very first time.
FNB Wits were then left with three vital games, with two being played at home and the one at ‘noisy neighbours’ FNB UJ. The Witsies managed to collect a bonus-point win in an entertaining match against FNB Madibaz. This victory made it two wins in a row ahead of a difficult derby against old rivals FNB UJ. The big derby saw a very tight encounter with both sides vying for the available semifinal spots. The game saw both teams deadlocked at 18-18 apiece at the break. Some disciplinary issues let the Witsies down, with some important players being relegated to the ‘sin bin’ at critical stages of the game that eventually saw FNB Wits lose the game 28-23, which meant the end of the road in the competition for the returning Witsies.
The last game against FNB UCT, was one of bragging rights between two of the best academic institutions on the continent. Once again FNB Wits stepped up to the occasion in front of their home supporters to beat the men from the Cape 36-23. This meant the Witsies finished off fifth on the log, just one position below the qualifying spots, with all games played.
This past season will definitely give FNB Wits and head coach Hugo van As great confidence, when the time comes to start preparing for next season, where many supporters will be expecting a lot more from the Witsies. A couple of influential players from this season, will still be available to play in next year’s eleventh edition of the Varsity Cup, but only time will tell if they will return stronger.
By Sifiso Nyawo