Varsity Cup: Tight at the top
Tuks vs Maties (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - FNB Tuks and FNB UJ signalled their intentions in the 2011 Varsity Cup with potentially season-changing victories over Cape sides, FNB Maties and FNB UCT, respectively; making next week's round seven fixtures absolutely crucial in terms of teams booking their semifinal places.
Tuks and UJ's wins mean that five teams - the two victorious sides, plus the teams they beat, Maties and UCT, and also FNB Shimlas - will all be playing for their last four positions next Monday.
As luck may have it, next week's final round league fixtures will see Tuks host UCT and Maties will host UJ, who now top the log after their first-ever win in Cape Town. Shimlas, however, will travel to Port Elizabeth to face the FNB Madibaz.
UJ - who also claimed a four-try bonus point on the Green Mile - now have 22 log points from their six matches thus far, followed by the Maties on 21, Tuks (21), UCT (19) and Shimlas, who on 19 points are now emerging as the dark-horses in these dramatic final weeks.
Tuks scored just two tries in their stunning 27-13 win over the three times defending champion Maties in Pretoria, but, most importantly, kept their cool - despite going down to 13 men at one stage during the first half.
They had players sin-binned in the 24th and 25th minutes, with the second yellow card leading to the Maties being awarded a penalty try, but they outscored the visitors during the next ten minutes (by six points to zero) to eventually lead by 17-10 at half-time.
Tuks took their new-found discipline into the second half as they scored ten more points, but, crucially, limited to the Maties to just three points as they claimed a second-ever Varsity Cup win over the men in maroon.
The day's other upset saw UJ beat UCT 34-22 - the visiting outfit from Johannesburg overturning a 7-10 half-time deficit and also grabbing the four-try bonus point as they used the notorious Green Mile wind to their advantage in the second half.
UCT were held scoreless for most of the second half, as UJ racked up a commanding 28-10 lead, before the hosts clawed their way back into the match with two late tries.
However, a UJ drop-goal squashed any UCT hopes of a comeback victory and the home side could be left ruing this defeat - especially as they now have to travel to Tuks (and win) next week to be assured of a semifinal place.
Whilst some of the teams above them faltered, Shimlas maintained their late surge for a semifinal place thanks to their convincing 52-26 away victory over the FNB TUT Vikings.
One highlight for TUT was that they ended week six above the Madibaz on the log, but it was little consolation as they found themselves 5-26 down at half-time as a rampant Shimlas side racked up the four-try bonus point by the 40-minute mark.
Winger Jamba Ulengo scored a try double and fullback George Whitehead converted six of his team's eight tries and last year's losing semifinalists could, well, have another shot at the play-offs this year should one of UJ, the Maties, Tuks or UCT (who are ahead on points' difference only) slip up next week.
Meanwhile, in the day's first game FNB Pukke recorded an emphatic 57-6 win over FNB NMMU in Potchefstroom - the home side's first Varsity Cup win of the season.
Despite being the only team in the competition yet to record a win going into this match, Pukke looked anything but a team that should be lagging at the bottom of the table.
Pukke ran riot against a stunned looking NMMU, who disappointingly just never seemed to turn up for the match after they had done so well to beat the TUT Vikings last week.
Both sides were eager to run the ball at every opportunity - although NMMU made far too many handling errors that Pukke were able to capitalise on and, in the process, execute some clinical finishing to score nine tries.
This result will keep the Wooden Spoon battle - like the battle at the top-end of the log - very open ahead of next week's final round of league fixtures.
In Varsity Shield action on Monday, Wits smashed UKZN 51-5 - running in five tries - whilst CUT edged out UWC 30-29 in a match which went down to the wire.
Wits and CUT have now opened up a little gap of their own on the Varsity Shield standings and look set to contest the first-ever Varsity Shield Final in early April.