The “anxiety” suffered by Fort Hare in their first match in six years in Varsity Football has been addressed and their upcountry opponents can expect to come up against a very different team on Thursday.
That is the warning UFH skipper Bonke Nxiwa has sounded to the University of Free State, who travel to Alice this week to take on a home side still smarting from a 2-0 loss to VUT in their tournament opener.
Serious conversations had been held around the team’s nervy start to the campaign and the players now understood that there could be no fear against the Bloemfontein side, Nxiwa said.
They have also worked hard to iron out issues that saw them failing to convert numerous chances in the VUT game. Similarly, a lot of attention was paid to defending against the aerial ball.
“We gave VUT too much respect and lost too much possession because of our anxiety,” said the captain, who has dreamt of playing for the university since his school days.
“I know my strikers. They have been our top goal scorers in the regional league, so their stage fright played a role [in not converting chances].”
He said the two goals VUT put past them in the second half both came from long-range efforts. As such, they had spent a lot of time this week focusing on set-piece play and testing the goalkeepers in the air.
UFS won’t be any pushover.
There were more than a few surprised faces in Varsity Football circles when they held defending champions TUT to a goalless draw in their opening fixture.
It was a match Fort Hare hurried to watch on television after their own game, and Nxiwa felt lessons had been learnt.
“UFS’s game plan was more defensive than going forward. They only had one chance going forward.
“I’ve been watching UFS for some time,” he said.
“You can’t give them a chance to play at the back because they will destroy you. But if you press them and keep them in their half you take away that threat.”
The pace of Varsity Football has been an eye-opener for Fort Hare. While they have only played one game so far, the high tempo of the competition was evident from the kick-off.
This was matched by the quality of player on display, Nxiwa said.
“They are coached by professional coaches, with many of the players playing in pro leagues. Some even play for Mamelodi Sundowns.”
In the first round of this year’s competition, three of the four matches ended in a deadlock.
While UFH were the only side to come away without points, Nxiwa pointed out that this set of results meant that no one had shown glimpses of early-season dominance.
Asked about the spectre of 2017, when Fort Hare lost all their matches in their last Varsity Football campaign, he said things were very different in 2023.
Six years ago he was still a schoolboy, but word quickly got round about the team’s winless season. It was apparent that there had been no cohesion between the Alice and East London-based players.
But he assured fans this was no longer the case as everyone prepared together.
“We are going to come back [on Thursday]. The nerves will be gone.
“I am appealing to our fans to be patient. We are still going to surprise many people in this competition.”