John Mitchell’s FNB UKZN Impi may have lost his first game in charge, but they showed that they will be a force to be reckoned with in the Varsity Shield this year.
The KwaZulu-Natal outfit were edged 26-25 by the FNB CUT Ixias in Bloemfontein on Monday night, but the defending champions were pushed all the way in a thrilling encounter that went down to the last kick of the match.
Although CUT got their campaign off to a winning start, it was not enough to secure top spot on the Varsity Shield log after the opening round, with FNB UWC claiming that honour thanks to a 26-8 victory over Fort Hare in Alice.
The Ixias occupy second place, followed by the UKZN Impi who fully deserved the bonus point they earned in Bloemfontein.
CUT did not lose a game in storming to the title last year, so this performance will give UKZN plenty of heart as they start a new era under former All Black coach Mitchell.
A second-half brace of tries from flying wing Shayne Makombe put the Impi right in the mix, and his last-minute five-pointer gave flyhalf Brandon Cope a chance to win the game, but his touchline conversion sailed just wide to break UKZN hearts.
The teams had gone into the half-time break deadlocked at 10-10, and the Impi were able to open up a 10-point lead thanks to a penalty from Cope and Makombe’s opening try.
However, CUT took control late in the game through tries from impressive tighthead prop Danie van der Merwe and outside centre Johan van Schalkwyk which gave them just enough for victory as a late rally from UKZN saw the visitors fall agonisingly short.
The second Varsity Shield match of the evening between the FNB Fort Hare Blues and former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ FNB UWC was also very physical, with the Cape side emerging 26-8 victors thanks to a late surge.
Fort Hare had the support of an enthusiastic crowd in Alice, and although the home side certainly did not lack passion UWC simply made better use of their opportunities to move to the top of the standings after the opening round.
The Cape side scored the only points in the first half to take a 10-0 lead into the half-time break, with Fort Hare’s handling costing them valuable momentum in a tense encounter.
The Eastern Cape outfit were not doing themselves any favours with some sloppy attacking play, but eventually opened their account when elusive flyhalf Oliver Zono scrambled over in the corner and then landed the touchline conversion to bring them right back into the game.
However, two late yellow cards meant that they were not able to overhaul UWC who scored two tries in the last 10 minutes to run away with it and take top spot on the Varsity Shield standings after the opening round.