A packed house bore witness to phenomenal Varsity Sports SA Hockey Final between defending champions University of Johannesburg and University of Pretoria Tuks here Monday night and the scoreline read 4-2 to the home side after an incredible 60 minutes’ hockey.
Tuks led 1-0 at half-time, the decisive first-half goal coming from the supremely talented Tuks front-man Richard Pautz in the 20th minute. UJ striker Ryan Crowe crafted a superb equaliser in the 39th minute after excellent combination play.
Both teams took the game to their opponents from the outset but defences held firm
The first real chance came in the eighth minute when Richard Pautz set Khumo Mokale free but the backhand shot flew into the side-netting.
Play raced to the other end and Ryan Crow let loose with a screamer that Tuks keeper Estiaan Kriek saved with understated comfort.
UJ skipper Gareth Heyns cut out a dangerous Tuks attack initiated by Kewan Harries and carried on through Grant Glutz and Stephen Cant before UJ attacking half-back Le-Neal Jackson fired a diagonal cross from right to left into the strike zone and Brynn Cleak’s outstretched stick got the touch but Kriek pulled off a magnificent save.
Then it was Stephen Cant at the other end who watched in disbelief as his backhand bullet flashed past the far post.
All this in the first 12 minutes! A massive crowd had built up and the atmosphere was electricity personified!
Sustained UJ pressure in which Amkelwa Letuka and Kingsley Botes played a part saw the latter earn a penalty corner, the first of the match, from umpire Peter Wright and the crowd gasped in disbelief as Kriek pulled off a stupendous save from UJ weapon Gareth Heyns’ blinding drag-flick.
In the fifth minute of the second chukka – and the pumped-up Tuks supporters exploded with delight when Richard Pautz netted a screamer off the backhand for a wonderful opening goal (Tuks 1 UJ 0).
UJ pressed forward in search of the equaliser and Kriek effected another superb save – and then another – as James Gilbert and Co. piled on the heat.
Kriek was simply brilliant in the first half of non-stop action – as he was in Tuks’ edging the maroon-shirted Maties army 1-0 (Stephen Cant wonder goal) in the semis last Monday in Stellenbosch.
UJ of course fought back in the stunning second semi-final to pull the match out of the fire against out-and-out underdogs Wits University 3-1 on penalty shootout after the scores were locked 4-4 at full-time.
Changing ends at 1-0 to Tuks it was UJ who had a lot to do but head coach Garreth Ewing and assistant coach Lance Louw had a quiet word with their men and this promised a fightback of note come the re-start.
Tuks mentor Guy Elliot was also busy talking through the ups and downs of the first 30 minutes and all signs pointed to an explosive second 30 minutes in this tussle for Varsity Sports SA Hockey supremacy.
Play swung from strike zone to strike zone with remarkable speed in the third chukka and both sides had great chances to trouble the scorekeepers – particularly UJ – but the final pass or that man Kriek prevented any thought of further joy for the respective fan clubs.
But with UJ making increasing inroads down the left flank and Gerald Mpopo, Amkelwa Letuka prominent it was no real surprise when the mercurial Ryan Crowe conjured up a world-class equaliser – this in the 39th minute (1-1).
It appeared that the 1-1 score set Tuks into reverse gear as UJ poured forward relentlessly and once again it was keeper Kriek who stopped the home team when he stopped a Nicolas Rowe effort.
Amkelwa Letuka drew oooohs and aaahs from the UJ fans soon after but the score remained unchanged.
Tuks were not done yet and Tim Halle came close to levelling matters in this absolutely frenetic contest before the teams went into the huddle at the three-minute break ahead of what promised to be a gripping fourth and final 15 minutes.
With 12 minutes left the on-fire Crowe smashed a rising backhand blast but Kriek was on hand to repel the threat. Seconds later outstanding midfielder Taylor Dart worked his brand of magic with stick and ball to win a PC that had multiple Olympic Games and Hockey World Cup umpire John Wright in no doubt.
The initial PC attempt was butchered but UJ reacted quickly and Heyns fired high into the net for the home fans to go wild as their boys went 2-1 up.
With 11 minutes on the clock Le-Neal Jackson broke away but was brought down by Tuks’ shot-stopper Kriek and John Wright had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot.
Kriek was banished to the sin-bin and a Tuks field player was subbed in order for the Pretoria lads’ second keeper Keagan du Preez to face the penalty but UK skipper Heyns was unerring in both power and accuracy as his flick ballooned the net to take the reigning champs into a 3-1 lead with just nine minutes to the final hooter.
The emotions took on another high in the 54th when Tuks appealed to earn a PC and Glutz fired a turf-burner to keeper Martins’ left that deflected high into the net (UJ 3 Tuks 2).
Tuks came straight back to earn a PC soon after the re-start, but UJ first wave Jackson streaked off the goalline at astonishing pace to run down the PC flick, carried the ball on and combined with the Player of the 2016 Varsity Sports Hockey Tournament, Taylor Dart, before getting the ball back to fire a shot that Du Preez saved but Tyson Dlungwana, following up beautifully from right half, slid the rebound into the net for the 4-2 final score
UJ, packed with outstanding youngsters – the likes of Dlungwana, Courtney Halle, Amkelwa Letuka and friends – in just their first year at Varsity, have a great future while for Tuks, who lose a host of senior players, it’s back into the re-building phase ahead of the next edition of this classic men’s tournament.