IN these trying times, we all need a bit of positivity, a bit of a feel-good message, a bit of belief.
Few stories in rugby can come close to replicating the kind of magic that was the 2014 Varsity Cup final. Then-UCT (Ikeys) head coach, Kevin Musikanth, shares what made that match so special, how the team t
urned their luck around, and how they orchestrated what can be described as one of the greatest comebacks in rugby union’s history. Importantly, he shares why he thinks you need more than the technical aspect of rugby to get results.
It’s 2014. The North West University Potchefstroom Campus and Pukke being crowned Varsity Cup champions is a mere formality. After all, they had only lost one game
through the league stage. They had a convincing lead. They were on another level. They were hungry for that inaugural title.
The University of Cape Town, on the other hand, had taken a hammering from the North-Westerners in their opening game so, given Pukke’s form, there was a clear favourite. Betting odds were sorted, the winner was clear, no doubt.
Until the 73rd or so minute or so…
The script had been followed until then, Pukke were in control. Things seemed on track. Until Ikeys fought back.
With seven minutes on the clock, Ikeys came back from being 15-33 down to catch up and win the final in a fashion so dramatic that it would make the greatest screenwriter blush.
Former UCT Ikeys coach Kevin Musikanth: 'Sometimes, even as coaches, you need some convincing.'
According to Musikanth, one thing that played a big part was belief, ‘magic’. It was something they had believed in even before the colossal task, but it became even more important heading into the finale at the Fanie Du Toit Stadium.
“We always had our backs against the wall because we were one of the lowest-ranked teams at the time. A team that had only won two games in two years heading into 2014. No one gave us a chance. So, as coaches we had decided that no matter what happened, we were never going to give up,” he said.
“The whole idea of magic was there from the beginning, but I didn’t think it would be such a big component or one of the defining reasons that we ended up winning, but right at the beginning us as coaches basically wanted to give the squad something to hold onto.
“My message to the team at the beginning of the campaign, I took from a movie (Second hand Lions) - a mentor that was dealing with a young boy growing up teaching him “the ways of the world," trying to help him by telling him that only three things really count in life.
“True love never dies, good always wins over evil, and the third was to always believe in something. I thought the last one sounded a bit grey, so I decided to make it a bit more romantic, saying always believe in magic.
What transpired in Potch that night would have been enough to make almost anybody believe in Musikanth’s credence, but Musikanth says that the belief on its own would have meant nothing without proper preparation.
“Good teams don’t lose matches, they just run out of time. It’s just the time that beats them. And that was our mantra going into the Varsity Cup final,” he said.
“If we could get to the end of the campaign and say that we really love our team, whether we won or lost would be an achievement, the whole good over evil thing was a little more around the university side of things – UCT being a strong academic university, and at the time there was a bit of bad press around some universities buying players. We kind of wanted to wear that ‘good’ cap and live up to being real students, so that was the romanticizing of the good over evil thing. I had kind of just left the magic thing, and that only came back in the week of the final, when we finally had made the it.
“Sometimes, even as coaches, you need some convincing. We had beat some really good teams in the pre-season so we were starting to get a feeling of confidence, but we had to pinch ourselves towards the end and say ‘oh my word, we’re in the final’, and that’s where the magic thing came in.
“One of our coaches, Ed O’Sullivan, told me that his friend was a magician, and I said ‘that’s great, so let’s just drive this last little bit home’, instead of having a final match practice just before we left for Potchefstroom, we had a magician there for them.
Musikanth went on to say that the role of the magician surely had an impact.
“He gave them the most amazing magic show, and in that time everybody, the players and the coaches, forgot that we were about to play in a Varsity Cup final, he had taken our minds completely away from the pressures of the final. On reflection, we realised that we were going into the final against a team that thumped us previously. The message then was ‘look guys, there’s no doubt that we’re a better team than the one that played Pukke in the in the first game, but if it comes down to magic, then we believe in magic and they don’t.’ After all, we had just witnessed it from the Magician.
Musikanth also credited his mentor Professor Tim Noakes for his contributions.
“Someone who was massively instrumental in that was Prof Noakes. He had this incredible belief that this team was going to be special, and he told me that the very first time I met him.
“Going back to the preparation part…you can believe in magic and true love never dying and being better people, which coaches love to talk about all the time, but if you’re not prepared and you don’t have confidence in your plan, it doesn’t really matter how much you believe
“Those 23 boys who actually manufactured the result, Nathan Nel scored the try, but the ball was touched by 14 of the 15 players on the field at the time. The only player who didn’t touch the ball was the tighthead prop, but it was just as vital for him to hold up his side of the scrum.. We needed a bit of luck and we needed a bit of magic, but the point is that every player and coach had to play their role. That for me was the cherry on the top.
“Looking at Covid, this is something we never thought could happen, but we’re now in it. We don’t know when its going to end, but somehow it will and we’re all going to remember it forever, while this is a very strange and frightening time for everybody, it’s about never giving up hope and the belief that we will eventually beat this thing. We’re living through this and we have to all somehow be better.
“If a team that had a bulk of players, that previously had only managed to win two games in two years, could somehow believe so much in themselves even when everything seemed lost and still go on and win in the end, then surely that can somehow be an example of what can happens when you never give up, there are lessons that we all can learn.”
In conclusion, Musikanth’s message is that you always have to believe in something, in his case, it was magic.