Shimlas the 'underdogs', says coach
Jaco Swanepoel, the head coach of FNB Shimlas, believes his team will head into the 2009 SAA National Club Championships as underdogs. However, that tag could just suit the Men from Bloemfontein down to the ground...
Shimlas ended the 2009 FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International as arguably the form team in the competition.
After a slow start, which saw them suffer three losses in their first four fixtures, they rallied strongly and very nearly grabbed that fourth semifinal spot.
Ultimately, they ended one win short of the play-offs, but they certainly made everyone sit up and take notice of their prowess with ball in hand.
"The tricky thing about the Varsity Cup is that it's so early in the year," coach Swanepoel told varsitycup.co.za.
"We tend to battle with continuity here at Shimlas, as - on average - we lose about 70% of our players at the end of the year. That means building a new team at the start (of every year)... it's a bit tough to start the season in February, with a new team, and to remain in the best of form."
Given the amount of momentum built up during the latter stages of the Varsity Cup, and their subsequent form in the Free State Stadsbeker, one would expect Shimlas to be raring to go ahead of the Club Champs.
Swanepoel, however, revealed that such assumptions were not always correct. "To be honest, we're actually under a bit of pressure," countered the Kovsies coach.
"Of the first-choice team that finished the Varsity Cup, we have just four players going to the Club Champs," he added.
"We have a few injuries, but Provincial call-ups have hit us hard... We serve three unions, the Cheetahs, Griquas and the Griffons, in all the competitions, so we're taking a very young team to the Club Champs - most of whom are still Under-21."
Inspirational captain Jaco Colyn (pictured, above) is thankfully one of the four players available to Swanepoel at the Club Champs, but the scrumhalf-cum-flyhalf will miss Sunday's opener against Park (from Port Elizabeth) due to university examinations.
"Jaco will arrive on Tuesday only," revealed Swanepoel. "Aside from him, we have (hooker) Gert Erasmus and (loose forwards) Andries Grobbelaar and Johan van Niekerk available from the Varsity Cup - that's it.
"Look, it's fair to say that we're going into the tournament as underdogs, but maybe the youthful exuberance of the squad, and that 'recklessness' that goes with youth, will make up for what the team lacks in experience.
"Free State teams always tend to get the underdog status ahead of big competitions, but often that unknown status can work in one's favour."
Youthful exuberance aside, there is also the small matter of the format of the National Club Championships which gets underway this Sunday at Tukkies' LC de Villiers sports grounds.
Making the final (at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, September 26) means the two teams going head-to-head for silverware in 2009 would have to play four tough matches in just seven days. Again, Swanepoel is hoping that his youngsters can use their fresh legs to their advantage.
"The key is starting well. If you lose your first two matches you're gone... After that, however, it's all about survival - four games in seven days arguably make the Club Champs one of the toughest competitions around.
"Whilst my guys might be younger than most, and therefore naturally fitter and able to cope with more games, experience will also play a huge role during the week," he continued.
And looking at the various contenders for the trophy, Swanepoel believes defending champions - and Varsity Cup 'colleagues' - Pukke will once again be one of the teams to beat.
He said: "The experience in their playing group aside, I think Pukke will benefit from the great continuity in their squad and their strong coaching staff. This Pukke team has been together all year long and performed in the Varsity Cup and the Grand Challenge and, of course, they're the defending champions.
"Hamilton's, from Cape Town, have a very experienced core unit with guys like Clinton van Rensburg in their side, but you cannot discount Pretoria Police - they beat Tuks to make it to the Club Champs... (and) they're basically the home side in Tuks' absence.
"Some people might not be mentioning us, but we're happy to go into the tournament as the underdogs. Like I said, let's see how those first two games go... then we can talk again!"
Round One draw for the 2009 Club Champs (Sunday, September 20):
(Seedings and Provinces in brackets.)
Pukke (1 - Leopards) v Noordelikes (16 - SARU invited team)
College Rovers (2 - KZN) v Impala (15 - SARU invited team)
Hamilton's (3 - WP) v Kuruman (14 - Griqualand West)
Springs (4 - Falcons) v Welkom Rovers (13 - Griffons)
Pretoria Police (5 - Blue Bulls) v Buffalo (12 - Border)
Pirates (6 - Golden Lions) v Middelburg (11 - Mpumalanga)
Shimlas (7 - Free State) v Park (10 - EP)
Rawsonville (8 - Boland) v Great Brakriver (9 - SWD)