FNB UP-Tuks secured their first Varsity Cup title with a hard-fought 29-21 victory over FNB Maties in a pulsating final at the Tuks Rugby Stadium in Pretoria on Monday.
Last year's runners-up produced a stirring second-half performance to pull away from the three-time champions who suffered their first Varsity Cup Final defeat, as the Varsity Cup was won by a team from up north for the first time.
There was plenty of physical intensity from the outset, with Tuks making good use of the high ball and the driving maul as they piled the pressure on the visiting team in the opening exchanges.
After forcing the Maties onto the back foot with their powerful forward pack the home side sent it wide and flyhalf Wesley Dunlop's looping pass found outside centre Jerome Pretorius who happily galloped over for an early try to the delight of the enthusiastic 15 000-strong crowd.
The team from Stellenbosch responded by barging into opposition territory with some powerful running but the Tuks defence stood firm and they took their 5-0 lead into the first strategy break.
However, they were soon undone by a piece of individual brilliance from Maties fullback André Smith who collected his own deft chip ahead in the 22 to go over for a try under the poles, and with the simple conversion the visitors had the lead at 8-5.
That prompted Tuks to launch a sustained period of pressure in the Maties 22, and although their line-out was under pressure they kept plugging away as the Cape side was forced to defend desperately.
Both Tuks props were substituted with eight minutes left in the first half and the move paid off when replacement Basil Short crashed over for a try after collecting a well-timed pass from scrumhalf Lohan Jacobs just short of the line.
Flyhalf Wesley Dunlop added the conversion to give them a 13-8 lead but Maties were determined to have the final say in the first half and they stormed into the Tuks 22 with purpose.
After some forceful running and impressive handling from the Maties forwards big lock Hugo Kloppers got over for a try in the left corner, and the teams went into the halftime break deadlocked at 13-13 which was an accurate reflection of an intense 40 minutes which saw both teams produce some quality rugby.
The home side started the second half with a bang when Jacobs got over for a superb team try that left Maties chasing the game once more.
The impressive Short showed great commitment by diving on a loose ball and it was worked out quickly to centre Dabeon Draghoender who found his midfield partner Pretorius in space on the outside. He managed to get the ball to Jacobs who was flying up on his inside and the scrumhalf stepped past a few defenders to go over for the try.
The brutal battle continued with Maties using their dominant line-out as an attacking platform, but they could not find a way through and Tuks were still 21-13 ahead at the second strategy break.
The Pretoria side were next to strike when their dynamic fullback Clayton Blommetjies timed his jump to perfection to pluck a high ball out of the air on the Maties 22 before finding Franco Mostert, and the lanky lock charged under the poles for a try which extended the lead to 29-13 with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Maties threw everything they had at their hosts in the final stages but Tuks managed to absorb the pressure, and despite a late consolation try to Maties replacement prop Hein van der Merwe they held on for a famous victory.
Earlier in the day FNB UCT secured their spot in the Varsity Cup next year with a 60-21 victory over Varsity Shield runners-up FNB CUT in a try-fest which saw both teams play an exciting brand of running rugby.
In the Koshuisrugby Championship Final Steinhoff Vishuis salvaged some silverware for the University of the Free State by recording a 44-26 victory over Steinhoff Dagbreek to cap an unbeaten season.
For FNB UP-Tuks - Tries: Pretorius, Short, Jacobs, Mostert ; Cons: Dunlop 3
For FNB Maties - Tries: Smith, Kloppers, Van der Merwe; Cons: Stevens, Kemp
UP-TUKS - 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Deon Helberg, 13 Jerome Pretorius, 12 Dabeon Draghoender, 11 Hayden Groepes, 10 Wesley Dunlop, 9 Lohan Jacobs, 8 Jono Ross, 7 Jacques Verwey, 6 Okkie Kruger, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Mike Williams, 3 Grant Kemp, 2 Zane Botha (captain), 1 Sabelo Nhlapo.
Replacements - 16 Kurt Haupt, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Sthembiso Mlongo, 19 Wiaan Liebenberg, 20 Rudi van Rooyen, 21 Willie du Plessis, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Basil Short.
MATIES - 15 André Smith, 14 Ryan Nell, 13 Wessel Coetzee, 12 Louis Jordaan, 11 Dean Hammond, 10 André Kemp, 9 Donald Stevens, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Helmut Lehmann (captain), 6 Sam Mabombo, 5 Hugo Kloppers, 4 Reniel Hugo, 3 Os Hamman, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Alistair Vermaak.
Replacements - 16 Alfred Ries, 17 Brummer Badenhorst, 18 JP Swanepoel, 19 Nicholas de Jager, 20 Boela Abrahams, 21 Jarryd Buys, 22 Clearance Khumalo, 23 Hein van der Merwe.
Referee - Rasta Rashivenga