FNB Wits, despite being down to 13 men at one stage, secured their place in the Varsity Cup next year with a hard-fought 19-17 victory over defending Varsity Shield champions FNB CUT in a dramatic finale in Bloemfontein on Monday.
The result means that CUT will line up against the Ikey Tigers in the promotion/relegation match which will serve as one of two curtain-raisers to the Varsity Cup Final in Pretoria next week Monday.
The home side stormed onto the front foot from the start, pinning Wits in their 22 until captain Inus Kritzinger broke on the blindside of an attacking scrum and put right wing Alec Mhlanga over for a simple try.
Wits then managed to find their feet on attack, after both sides narrowly missed long-range penalty attempts, and rampaged towards the 22 where they were awarded a penalty in front of the poles which was knocked over by flyhalf Kyle Peyper to get the visitors on the board.
CUT flyhalf Jannie Myburgh restored the eight-point lead for CUT when he added a penalty just before the first strategy break, but it was Wits who came out firing when play resumed and they were rewarded when big lock Rinus Bothma crashed over for a try from a line-out drive.
The conversion from Peyper levelled the scores at 10-10, which prompted an immediate response from the home team who thundered back into the Wits 22 where they camped for some time as the Wits defence underwent a tough examination.
To their credit Wits stood firm and held off the onslaught from the Bloemfontein side until a moment of individual brilliance handed them the lead for the first time in the match on the stroke of halftime.
Outside centre Bronson Lange got the ball on the left and put a grubber through Mhlanga's legs before picking it up deftly and turning on the pace to strike a massive blow for his team who had done well to absorb the pressure and take a 15-10 into the break.
The side from Johannesburg extended that lead when Peyper knocked over a penalty early in the second half, and CUT suddenly found themselves chasing the game in front of their home crowd.
Myburgh reduced the deficit with a penalty, and Wits were placed firmly on the back foot when replacement back and former captain David Turnbull was shown a yellow card for standing on the chest of CUT left wing Seabelo Senatla.
The home side set about using their one-man advantage by forcing the stretched Witsies to defend desperately and things got even worse for the visitors when tighthead prop Phakamilu Zuma saw yellow after repeated infringements from his team - reducing the visitors to just 13 men.
CUT battled to capitalise despite their advantage and with Wits showing plenty of heart to hold them off the pressure started to mount on the Men from Bloemfontein with time running out.
Wits managed to strike the next blow when Peyper slotted a sensational drop-goal from near the halfway line which restored the seven-point lead, leaving the game nicely poised with the home side needing a converted try to get back in front.
They kept hammering away and the Wits defence finally cracked when replacement front row forward Petri Coetzee forced his way over near the right corner, but Myburgh could not convert which meant that Wits held on to their slender 19-17 lead with ten minutes left.
Although the home side threw everything at the visitors in the dying stages Wits continued to show the character which had marked their performance to secure a famous victory and book their place in the Varsity Cup for the next two years.
Tries: Mhlanga, Coetzee
Pens: Myburgh 2
Tries: Bothma, Lange
Pens: Peyper 2
CUT: 15 Noel Marx, 14 Alec Mhlanga, 13 Charlie Hitchcock, 12 Gerrit Smith, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Jannie Myburgh, 9 Inus Kritzinger, 8 Ruan Lombard, 7 Francis Sisita, 6 Francois Harvey, 5 Gavin Annandale, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Petri Coetzee, 2 Baksteen van Heerden, 1 Rudi Britz.
Replacements: 16 Deon Gouws, 17 Rudie Fuls, 18 Grant Shai, 19 Shaun McGeer, 20 Stephen Griesel, 21 Leon Pretorius, 22 Maphelo Mpondo, 23 Danie van der Merwe.
Wits: 15 Blake Dismore, 14 Josh Durbach, 13 Bronson Lange, 12 Ryan Odendaal, 11 Riaan Arends (vice-captain), 10 Kyle Peyper, 9 Brent Crossley, 8 Jason Fraser, 7 Devin Montgomery (capt), 6 Thato Mavundla, 5 Charles Baggott, 4 Rinus Bothma, 3 Phakamilu Zuma, 2 Piers Cooper, 1 Katlego Kgame.
Replacements: 16 Peter van Biljon, 17 Oliver Rochat, 18 Sam Peters, 19 Heinke Hartdegen, 20 David Turnbull, 21 Nkululeko Gamede, 22 Zunaid Kock, 23 Juandre Kirkham.
Referee: Gerrie de Bruin