For several reasons, it will be a whole new ball game when FNB Fort Hare University starts the defence of their FNB Varsity Shield title next week.
Last season the Blues won the Shield for the first time in a cracking final against Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The match stretched to 83 minutes before they got home 28-27.
It was their best performance in the Shield in recent years, with the previous highest finish being the fourth position they held in 2020 when the competition was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But coach Lumumba Currie, who has lost seven players from the squad for the 2023 campaign, knows that effort will not mean anything as the teams gear up for a fresh competition.
Fort Hare open their programme against Walter Sisulu University on February 16 and, even though they will be on home turf at Davidson Stadium in Alice, they make no bones about the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead.
“As the defending champions, there is going to be a lot of pressure this season and the match with Walter Sisulu should be another cracking game,” he said.
“Being neighbouring institutions, we have been rivals for a long time. We beat them in the round-robin and semi-final matches last year, but that will not mean anything.
“It’s a new ball game now and we need to focus all our attention on that.”
Currie acknowledged that winning the first game of a new competition, especially when playing at home, could set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
“This is going to be a big one and it’s important to make a good start, because that can take some pressure off both the players and coaching staff.”
The Blues mentor explained that they had faced several pre-season challenges, most notably battling to secure competitive warm-up matches due to many Eastern Cape clubs being involved in the Super 14 competition.
“We have also entered a building phase after losing seven regulars from last year but, under captain Kamvelihle Fatyela, we are determined to soldier on.
“The players performed with a lot of passion last year and we will continue to adopt the attitude of not taking any teams lightly.”
Although a number of their squad members had not competed at Shield level, Currie was adamant that it would not change their approach.
“Last year we went into every game with the aim of fighting for every point and that’s going to be the same in 2023.”
The Blues’ clash with Walter Sisulu gets underway at 7pm and will be screened live on SuperSport.