The University of Johannesburg lifted themselves up from a tough first half to claim their second successive Varsity Hockey men’s title as they beat the University of Pretoria Tuks 4-2 in a thrilling final at their home astroturf in Westdene.
Tuks were outstanding as they gave the defending champions a real run for their money and they led for the first 39 minutes through a fine goal by the prolific Richard Pautz. But UJ equalised through Ryan Crowe, one of the best players of the tournament, and the hosts picked up three more goals in the final quarter to seal victory.
But the result was still in the balance in the final minute as Tuks cut the lead to 2-3 through Grant Glutz and they then earned a short-corner, which was charged down and then resulted in a goal at the other end to complete one of the best finals seen in local hockey in recent years.
Tuks took their chances better in the first half and scored after 20 minutes through Pautz, who went on a weaving run and then beat UJ goalkeeper Matthew Martin at his near post with a powerful reverse-sticks strike for a top-grade goal.
UJ had numerous chances but at times seemed too intent on forcing short-corners, and they were also stymied by a superb display of goalkeeping by Tuks number one Hendrik Kriek.
A couple of saves by Kriek in the 12th and 14th minutes and a double-save in the 21st minute were top-drawer and UJ would have gone into halftime knowing they had to be more clinical in the Tuks circle.
The introduction of the powerplay by Tuks two minutes into the second half meant the focus of UJ was initially on defence, but four minutes later they wasted their most obvious chance of the match as they created a two-on-one with the goalkeeper but the excellent scrambling and reflexes of Kriek saw him save Brynn Cleak’s shot.
But three minutes later, the combined efforts of Cleak and Amkelwa Letuka were enough to set up Crowe in the middle of the circle and he finally managed to beat Kriek.
The end of the third quarter came with Glutz flicking wide from a short-corner and the tension levels of the large crowd reached feverish levels as the final went into the last 15 minutes at 1-1.
Like all champion sides, this was when the composure and class of UJ shone through.
The powerplay did not bring reward either for the hosts, but the heroics of Kriek did keep a high reverse-sticks strike by Crowe out in the 48th minute, shortly after it ended.
The deadlock was broken just a minute later though when Taylor Dart, named the player of the tournament, won a short-corner. UJ kept their composure well when the set-piece initially went awry, and Dart passed the ball back to Gareth Heyns, the captain, and he powered a flick into the top left corner of the goal.
The defending champions took a firm grip on the title in the 51st minute when the umpire, John Wright, officiating alongside his brother Peter, awarded the home side a penalty stroke as the tide suddenly turned against Kriek.
The Tuks hero felled Le-Neal Jackson after his great run into the circle, leaving the umpire with little choice but to point to the spot and give the goalkeeper a yellow card. Heyns duly flicked past Keagan du Preez, the substitute goalkeeper, and UJ had control of the game with a 3-1 lead.
But the result was once again put in doubt just three minutes later – setting up a delicious finale – when Stephen Cant’s fine run earned Tuks a short-corner. Cleak cleared nicely off the line off Glutz, but Tuks then won another short corner and this time Glutz succeeded with his low flick. Martins will perhaps feel he could have done better with the shot, that went between his legs.
Tuks then earned another short-corner in the final minute, Glutz showing his tremendous skill to the joy of his team-mates and the Pretoria students’ supporters.
But that soon turned to awful dismay as Jackson roared up as first wave and charged down the shot, running most of the length of the field before finding Cleak on the baseline. The Namibia-born 23-year-old passed back to Jackson, but his shot was kept out by Du Preez. But the rebound fell to Tyson Dlungwana, who buried it in the goal.
Tuks, with several students playing in their last Varsity Hockey tournament, will return to Pretoria bleak, but they played a full role in a thoroughly crowd-pleasing final.
For UJ, the celebrations will be long and joyous as they keep the trophy in Johannesburg.