FNB CUT Ixias head coach Skillie Bester believes that the FNB UKZN Impi are the favourites leading into the FNB Varsity Shield final on Monday.
The Ixias topped the standings by five log points ahead of the second-placed Impi and beat them 26-25 in the first game of the season in Bloemfontein, but when the two teams met in the last round of fixtures last week, it was the side from Kwa-Zulu Natal who came out on top, winning 39-21 and Bester says the Impi are favourites on form.
“I think UKZN has turned the tables on us [last] Monday,” Bester told varsitycup.co.za.
“I think they should now be the favourites to win this, so it’s going to be a tough one and we are up and arms [to fight back].
The CUT coach said that while he didn’t think his side was mentally fully up for the game last week, having already qualified for a home final, the fact remains that UKZN put in a very good performance to comfortably beat his side.
“We are trying to prepare better and get the guys focused and obviously being in the final plays a role in preparations.
“We are trying to rectify that [last week's loss] but UKZN played well.
“Yes, the guys didn’t show up mentally but apart from that they played well, so we know what we’re in for.
Bester said that while the loss to the Impi was clearly a setback, he would use it as a positive to give his side a good wake-up call to bring them back down to earth after a season in which they won six out of their eight games and some players need to re-focus.
“It wasn’t a plan [to lose to UKZN], we wanted to keep momentum and the good thing going but they exposed us and some of our players.
“We went into a comfort zone – [when] playing against teams that are below par, it doesn’t matter [as much if are not there mentally] you still get away [with it] because the rest of the team is good.
“Then suddenly you play a good team that plays good rugby and you get exposed and it’s a good wake-up call.
“So there’s a few guys that need to go and think a little bit and come back and put their hands up again,” Bester added,
The Varsity Shield final also doubles up as a promotion game with the chance to move up to the Varsity Cup, and Bester said the pain of previous disappointments in attempts to gain promotion was weighing on his mind. CUT have lost twice in promotion games.
They went down 17-19 at home to Wits in the promotion game in 2012 and lost 43-50 to TUT in 2011 to fail to move up to the Varsity Cup. In 2013 they won the Varsity Shield too, but there was no promotion at stake that year.
“Game’s don’t get much bigger than this for us and it’s on our home turf, so we can’s lose this, we cannot lose this another time – we lost it in the past two or three times in promotion games and so it’s a big game for us.”
The Ixias have no injury problems going into the final, and their only concern centre Charles Hitchcock – who missed their last game against UKZN with a virus – should be well enough to play.
Bester says promotion to the Varsity Cup and the rewards it would bring would be fantastic for the University and the region.
“If you just see the amount of publications and all the publicity that comes with it, I think somebody made a calculation of about R4 million worth of free advertising that the University gets from Varsity Cup rugby so obviously it’s a huge thing for us.
“From the Free State side of things, we would like to have two teams from Bloemfontein in the Varsity Cup.
“I mean it we can do well and even make it a Shimlas-Ixias final one day, can you think of how this town will buzz?
“Those are dreams, let’s win the final first and then start dreaming,” Bester concluded.
By Matthew Riches