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08 September 2021 | in FISU Athletes

South African Varsity Netball competitions back in action after postponement

The University of the Free State continued their dominant showing in the annual Varsity Netball competition, claiming a record-extending fourth title in this year’s unique eighth edition of the tournament.

 

One of the highlights of the South African university netball calendar, the annual Varsity Netball competition, which first took place in 2013, pits eight of the country’s top university sides against each other, with national glory at stake.

 

The competition has grown exponentially in stature since its humble beginnings, and now involves large corporate sponsorship, elite-level athletes as well as national television coverage, with each of the 36 fixtures in this year’s competition broadcasted on television screens across South Africa.

 

With the 2020 edition cancelled due to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, tournament organisers were hard at work to ensure the 2021 edition could be organised successfully, prioritising the wellbeing and safety of all concerned. While matches were previously played on a weekly basis, the 2021 Varsity Netball tournament was held over just ten days in a bio-secure bubble at Stellenbosch University’s Coetzenburg Indoor Centre.

 

The first of seven round robin fixtures kicked off on Saturday, 21 August, with defending champions University of Pretoria (Tuks) suffering a surprising 73-64 defeat to North-West University (NWU), while 2019’s beaten finalists Stellenbosch University – affectionately known as Maties – earned a hard-fought 54-46 victory over University of the Free State – nicknamed Kovsies – to open their campaign on the front foot.

 

Desperate to avenge their final defeat last time out, Maties would enjoy a prolific week thereafter, overcoming all who were placed in their path as they went unbeaten in their seven group stage games to top the standings. Kovsies’ Match Day 1 defeat would be the only blip on their radar as they emerged victorious in their next six encounters to finish second on the table, three points ahead of semi-final opponents NWU, with Tuks rounding off the top four.

 

The last-four clashes were thus confirmed, with Maties overpowering Tuks 62-53 in a repeat of the 2019 final, while it was a much tighter affair in the second semi-final as Kovsies pipped NWU by just a single point, their 66-65 victory earning them a spot in the Varsity Netball final for an impressive fourth occasion.

 

Having ended as beaten finalists in two previous tournaments, Maties were desperate to claim their first-ever Varsity Netball gold medal, and were in a confident mood, their 2021 unbeaten streak starting off with that opening round victory over their final opponents. Kovsies, on the other hand, had plenty big-match experience, having never lost in their previous three final outings, and had five members of their 2018-winning team to lean on once more this year.

 

Led by former South African national team coach Burta de Kock, Kovsies took the initiative from the start, making their chances count as they held a narrow 11-10 lead after the first quarter. Despite being in the familiar surroundings of their home court, albeit without fans, Maties soon started feeling the pressure of being in the unfamiliar position of trailing in a match as several errors began creeping into their play, the ruthless Kovsies ladies capitalising to stretch their lead to 23-20 at half-time.

 

Sticking with their core players while opponents Maties rang in the changes in an attempt to mount a comeback, Kovsies increased their lead by a further point at the end of the third quarter, taking a 34-30 lead into the last period of the match. Making the most of the power play, the ladies from the Free State eventually surged to an impressive 55-39 win in the end, lifting a record-extending fourth Varsity Netball crown to become the undisputed queens of the tournament, adding to their gold medals of 2013, 2014 and 2018.

 

Kovsies captain Sikholiwe Mdletshe says their opening round defeat to Maties helped spur them on to final glory. “We got the team together and decided to fight as an army. We never looked back.”

 

Semi-final and final Player of the Match Khanyisa Chawane said the team’s strong mindset helped them achieve their goal. “We told ourselves we are going to a final and we are going to win it, and that is the mindset we came here with and what took us through.”

 

Despite ending up on the losing team, Stellenbosch University’s Nicholé Taljaard was named Player of the Tournament for her fine displays across the ten-day competition.

 

This year’s varsity Netball was hailed as a success by all organisers and stakeholders, with the tournament playing a key role in the development of netball in South Africa. A total of 88 schools were represented by the players across the eight universities participating in this year’s tournament, while of the 16 South African team netballers selected for the national squad to compete against Jamaica next month, 12 players came through the Varsity Netball ranks.

 

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