The next chapter in Fort Hare’s breakout season will be written on Friday when the team become only the second Eastern Cape tertiary institution to play in FNB Varsity Football’s elite women’s competition.
Already champions of the Sasol Women’s League coastal stream after winning 15 out of 16 matches, they have also made the playoffs of that competition for the first time.
Their mouthwatering encounter with Executive Ladies, winners of the inland stream, is set for August 19.
But first it is their debut in Varsity Football, matching the achievement of the province’s Walter Sisulu University in 2018.
Their first assignment is against the University of KwaZulu-Natal in a televised game at 1pm on Friday.
Coach Asanda Mnakaniso is under no illusions about the task at hand, especially since many of the players turning out in the Sasol League do not meet the competition’s 25-and-under age requirement.
However, true to form, he has chosen to see the silver lining in the situation.
“It allows us to put more time into these players who are not used to game time.
“We feared we were not using them often enough in the Sasol League but now we will use them 100 per cent of the time,” he said.
As newcomers, UFH will be up against far more experienced opposition who know what is required to win. But such is Mnakaniso’s belief in his young squad that he feels they will quickly adapt to the conditions.
Due to the age-limit restriction on regular skipper Okuhle Stemela, Sasol League vice-captain Cwayita Kaiyana takes over the armband for the competition.
The coach said Kaiyana was an exceptional leader who knew how to marshal her troops.
“We weren’t even aware of this as the technical team, but last week she held a meeting with the team to motivate and empower the young players.
“I was overwhelmed hearing such things. The players are ready to go to war for her.”
Mnakaniso is familiar with UKZN’s tactics, having watched them play at the University Sports South Africa tournament last December.
Coming from a province that focused a lot on positional, passing football, he expects much of the same at the Pretoria tournament.
One of the challenges Fort Hare is facing is that they essentially have two big events at the same time – Varsity Football and the all-important Sasol League playoff.
The coach admitted that this had divided his focus to some extent.
“I will try to put as much focus as possible on the next project (Varsity Football). We have a duty of raising the UFH flag up high as both events are important in many different ways,” he said.
Fort Hare have secured one friendly fixture, to be played on August 16, and Mnakaniso thinks that will leave them match-ready for the playoff.
“Our main belief is that match-fitness is important, so playing more will shape the team better. This means Varsity Football is also part of our playoff preparation.”
He said while the reality was that UFH would be tested in terms of depth, the dedication of the players would stand them in good stead at the tournament.
“I wish this group of players I have can last a lifetime, but then football is football. Players come and go as the seasons change.”