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UCT underdogs set sights on Bloem upset

VARSITY CUP PREVIEW: The Ikeys are relishing the prospect of facing a like-minded Shimlas side in what should be a thrilling Varsity Cup final in Bloemfontein next week.

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The Varsity Cup semi-finals served up a couple of upsets, with the third- and fourth-ranked sides winning away from home.

The upshot is that the NWU Eagles’ reign as champions has come to an end, and the final will be staged in Bloemfontein on 22 April.

Shimlas travelled to Stellenbosch as underdogs, having lost to Maties during the league phase of the tournament. On the day, however, André Tredoux’s charges produced a stellar performance to beat Maties 38-24 and book their place in the decider.

The venue for the final was only confirmed, however, after the Ikeys beat the Eagles 32-18 in the later game staged in Potch.

That result marked an incredible turnaround for the Ikeys, who lost 30-18 at the Fanie du Toit Stadium seven days earlier.

“We were hurting after that loss.. As you’d expect, the mood is very different after the semi-final win,” Ikeys coach Tom Dawson-Squibb told @Rugby365com.

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“Massive credit needs to go to our forward coaches [Josh Strauss and Joel Carew]. I spoke to Eagles head coach Burger van der Westhuizen afterwards, and he lamented the seven lineouts we took off them. The Eagles score a lot of their tries from that set piece, so for us to disrupt them in that manner went a long way towards winning the game.”

Few expected the Ikeys and Shimlas to win their respective semi-finals and to advance to the decider. Nevertheless, both teams will be desperate to make the opportunity count, given their lack of silverware in recent years.

Shimlas won their only Varsity Cup title in 2015, when they beat the Eagles 63-33 in Bloem. As the home team for the 2024 decider, they will begin as favourites.

And yet, the Ikeys have shown why they are not to be underestimated. They have reason to believe that their decade-long trophy drought may finally be coming to an end.

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UCT won the Varsity Cup in 2011 and 2014. They’ve been losing finalists on four occasions, and this particular group of players and coaches believe that they have learned some important lessons from the more recent defeats in 2021 and 2023.

“For this group, it’s our third final in four years, and I suppose that does suggest that we’re under some pressure,” noted Dawson-Squibb.

“At the same time, I don’t want the boys to overthink this. We came close to winning in previous seasons, and with a bit of luck, we may well have finished on the right side of the result.

“We can’t bank on luck now, though. Destiny is on our hands, and we have to go our and make it happen.

“It’s the last chance for some of the players and coaches, so there is added motivation in that respect. While we may take some lessons from recent finals, we won’t make too much of the fact that the opportunity is there to win a first title in 10 years.”

Some may question whether UCT have enough physical and mental energy in reserve, after playing back-to-back matches against the defending champions.

“It can be a gruelling trip to Potch: flying up country, taking the bus, and then staying some 40 minutes outside of town,” Dawson-Squibb said. “Then you get to the ground, and it’s a hostile welcome for visiting teams.

“We embraced all of that for two weeks, and came through with the result. Even after the first game in Potch, I told the boys that it was alright to lose the battle as long as we won the war.

“Our guys like to travel, and we don’t mind a trip to Bloem,” the Ikeys coach added. “We’re expecting a nice dry night for the final, conditions that will suit both teams. A spectacle of running rugby is certainly on the cards.”

The two sides met in Bloem in the first round of the tournament. Shimlas were in control for most of the contest, until UCT hit back to steal an unlikely 38-32 victory.

Dawson-Squibb said that the Ikeys are expecting a more clinical – and ultimately a more dangerous – Shimlas team in the decider.

“They’re the great entertainers, the team that plays with flair and is known for its attack.

“Their defence has improved a great deal over the course of the season. While they are better known for their exceptional backs, they also have a solid pack.

“I don’t think their game model would have changed too much since that first encounter. Where they have improved, as the results suggest, is in the execution of that game plan.

“We’re excited about playing in the final, but we know how tough it’s going to be against that Shimlas side.”

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