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Sacrifice and desperation: How the Shimlas ended a nine-year drought

REACTION: Shimlas coach André Tredoux has revealed how a shift in mindset and conditioning contributed to Ethan Wentzel’s winning penalty in what was a thrilling Varsity Cup Final against UCT.

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The decider in Bloemfontein lived up to the hype, with two attack-minded teams combining for 11 tries and 87 points.

The Ikeys crossed the whitewash at the death to level the scores, before Ntokozo Makhaza pushed the conversion attempt wide.

After the restart, the Shimlas managed to regather possession and win a penalty deep in Ikeys territory. From there, Wentzel booted his team to a 45-42 victory – and ended Shimlas’ nine-year title drought.

Speaking to @Rugby365com, Tredoux reflected on his three-year journey with the Shimlas and highlighted the differences that set the 2024 campaign – as well as the performance in the Final – apart.

The players worked closely with a mental performance coach in the pre-season, and their superior mettle was certainly on show in the closing stages of the Final at Shimla Park.

A greater commitment to conditioning – particularly by Wentzel – amplified the team’s attacking game, and allowed them to prevail in a lung-busting encounter with the Ikeys.

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“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any nerves after we conceded those two early tries,” Tredoux said with a chuckle.

Indeed, after UCT raced into a 14-0 lead, it appeared as if the visitors were on course for another famous victory.

“The Ikeys put 60-odd points past us in last year’s semifinal.

“They started that game in a similar manner – so when it happened in the Final on Monday, I was asking myself if we might be in for another blowout.

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“Knowing what came before, however, prepared us for that kind of assault. They are a brilliant attacking team and I can’t say enough about the quality of those coaches.

“We knew they would come up to Bloem and put us under pressure. We simply had to stay in the fight.”

In the first round of the 2024 tournament, the Shimlas suffered a 32-38 loss to UCT at the same venue.

That match – along with the Ikeys’ buildup to the Final – impacted on the Free State side’s preparations for the decider.

“The Ikeys put us under a lot of pressure in the opening round, and forced us to concede a lot of penalties.

“Even though we outscored them by five tries to three on that occasion, they kept the scoreboard ticking through the boot of Makhaza.

“As a result of that loss, we knew that we had to be more disciplined against them in the Final.”

Tom Dawson-Squibb’s charges suffered a 18-30 loss to the NWU Eagles in the final round of the league phase.

The following week, UCT headed back to Potch, and claimed a 32-18 victory.

Ahead of the Final in Bloem, Dawson-Squibb told @Rugby365com that the Ikeys had decided to take all of the travel-related challenges in their stride.

But in the end, the travel may well have diluted their performance. The Ikeys led 31-26 at half-time, before losing the second half 19-11.

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“We’d noted how they travelled to Potch and back for two consecutive weeks,” said Tredoux.

“It was always going to be a high-tempo game between them and us, but we knew that the longer that type of contest continued, the better off we’d be at the end.

“We said beforehand, we are going to win this game after the 50th minute. We are going to make their tight forwards tackle and tackle in the closing stages.

“They just never went away, though, scoring against us at the end.

“You really need to put their performance into perspective, after travelling up to Potch, and then playing that kind of game against us in Bloem.”

Makhaza, who recently became the Varsity Cup’s top all-time point-scorer, pushed a difficult conversion attempt wide. With the scores level and only seconds left to play, it appeared as if the contest was heading to extra time.

Tredoux said that the physical and mental improvements made by the group over the course of the campaign came to the fore in the dying moments of the Final.

It was particularly fitting that Wentzel of all people landed the telling blow for Shimlas.

“It was about desperation.

“We did some work with a mental coach [Chris Brown, who was previously involved in the American Sevens system] at the start of the season, and he spoke to the players about sacrifices.

“You have to remember that these players are students rather than professionals, and you are asking them to change their habits. So are they prepared to cut down from say five beers to two?

“That is one of the really satisfying things about this campaign. We won the Varsity Cup, but we also had the chance to encourage individuals to see what they can achieve if they change their habits.

“The type of game we play – you have to be committed if you’re going to keep up,” the Shimlas coach continued.

“Earlier in the season, Ethan Wentzel wasn’t the fittest guy around, and so it became a case of, ‘What will you do to change that?’

“The conditioning coach gave him extra work, and eventually he got there.

“You could see how it made the difference in 81st minute of what was an exhausting final. Ethan has the physical and mental strength to slot the winning kick.”

It’s been a rollercoaster of a season, and Tredoux experienced a wide range of emotions over the course of a dramatic final in Bloemfontein.

At no stage, however, did he consider swapping an attacking approach for a more conservative, risk-averse strategy.

“The Ikeys won the university world title last year, and they are a team that is known for attacking rugby. So for us to beat a team like that in a final, and by staying true to our own attacking brand, is immensely satisfying.

“When we started out three years ago, we said that our mission was to win the Varsity Cup, to play an attractive brand of rugby and to transform lives. We’ve achieved that, and hopefully that will set the platform for bigger things to come.

“We don’t want to wait nine more years for our next trophy. There will be a period of rebuilding, with 12 of our players graduating, but our Young Guns have done well, losing narrowly to the Eagles in the final of that tournament, and we’ll have a few of those players coming through soon.

“We also have one of the greatest rugby factories in Grey College down the road. Perhaps more of those players will be encouraged to join us now that we’ve won a title by playing an exciting attacking brand of rugby.”

@rugby365com

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