We knew that we would have to dig deep to get the victory
UCT coach Kevin Musikanth said the key to his team's remarkable comeback in the Varsity Cup Final was their commitment to fight to the end no matter what.
The Ikey Tigers scored three tries in the last five minutes to come from 33-15 down and claim a 39-33 victory over NWU-Pukke which stunned the capacity crowd at the Fanie du Toit Sports Grounds in Potchefstroom.
The home side looked to have their first title wrapped up before tries from Michael Botha, Dean Grant and Nathan Nel saw the Ikeys snatch their second title in the most dramatic style.
On Tuesday afternoon the team and coaching staff brought the trophy back home, and were welcomed by fans at Cape Town International airport.
Musikanth was brimming with pride following the team's massive performance and never-say-die attitude on the field and explained that they would have fought as hard no matter what the scoreline was.
"We made a commitment that no matter what we would keep going until the end and keep fighting. Whether we were winning or losing we wanted to be Tigers. The boys had the fight in them, they probably just needed the spark that the bench brought onto the field," he told varsitycup.co.za.
The Ikeys coach said that it typified the attitude his team showed all season as they went unbeaten away from home to bounce back emphatically from their seventh-place finish last year.
"This Ikey Tigers team refused to give up throughout the campaign; scoring tries at the death against NMMU, Tuks, Maties in the round robin game, and lastly in the final. So what the final revealed was the willingness of the boys to always keep fighting and playing," he said.
Captain Liam Slatem echoed his coach's sentiments, explaining that the character of his side was what ultimately got them over the line.
"We are a squad that believes in ourselves and in our systems, and I think that was evident. The never say die attitude was displayed and the will to win within the team is huge.
"We are a family and we knew that we would have to dig deep to get the victory. The character of this team is indescribable and that was evident last night. It is a very special team and I've said it since we began this road," he said.
Musikanth said that Professor Tim Noakes has been an instrumental part of the team, and advised them to keep playing until the final whistle, which is often after the 80 minutes are up.
"Finals are often decided by the last play of the game, so no matter what - never give up. Good teams don't lose they just run out of time and that's what appeared to happen with us until that drop goal was charged down, and then 13 of our players handled the ball before Nathan Nel scored that beautiful Varsity Cup winning try," the coach said.
He noted that the charged down kick from Michael Botha, and then Chad Solomon's inside pass to Nel were the turning points in the match, with the bench providing a major injection of energy against the tiring NWU-Pukke defence.
"The turning point was the intensity with which the bench approached their role within the script of this Cup. They came on with heat, passion and desire to make an impact and they only had a few minutes to do that. And it seems a few minutes was all they needed," he said.
Slatem also praised the bench, and acknowledged the role they have played the whole season.
"Our substitutes were brilliant last night and they injected pace and life into the team when they came on. It was an amazing team performance, and it is known that while individuals win games, squads win trophies. The whole squad and our management team must be commended for showing the true character of the Ikeys," he said.
Musikanth had some sympathy for NWU-Pukke who played their part in an epic match and had the title taken from under their noses.
"Pukke had the game all sewn up. A final match is a strange animal and UCT have been on the back end of being ahead at 80 minutes only to have the Varsity Cup taken from them in the 81st minute," he said.
The Ikeys coach said that it was particularly satisfying to see the players get the ultimate reward after putting in so much hard work throughout the season.
"You know as coaches you are so emotionally attached to the players that you desperately want what is best for them, but ultimately they have to play themselves. These boys are a special bunch; for a team to score 24 points in seven minutes in a final is magical, so the boys had it in them. We can all be very proud Varsity Cup champions as we look forward to the next challenge," he said.