JOHANNESBURG - Apart from the Absa Premiership logo on the right sleeve that serves as a badge of honour for the Kings of South Africa, Bidvest Wits haven’t looked the part of league champions so far.
The Clever Boys exhibited good fighting spirit in their opening match against Golden Arrows. They came back from 2-0 down in regulation play and won on penalties to move a step closer to retaining their MTN8 trophy. But against more potent opponents Wits would have been eliminated.
Their MTN8 ambitions took a knock with a 1-0 loss to Cape Town City in the first leg of the semi-finals in the Mother City. Wits have collected just one point out of six in the Premiership, losing to the Citizens and playing to a 2-2 draw with their bogey side Free State Stars.
“There are some people who thought that us winning the league was a fluke,” Phumlani Ntshangase, Wits’ longest serving player, who has been there since 2011, said. “That’s not true and we know it. We won the league because we had a good squad and we worked hard.
"But when we start like this, those people start to believe that their words are true. The boat isn’t sinking just yet. It’s just that there are holes that we need to quickly plug to return to the force we were last season.”
Wits find themselves in this position because of coach Gavin Hunt’s failure to balance the new players pushing those who did well last season so that they don’t rest on their laurels and rewarding those who did well in the last campaign.
That struggle to balance the two has seen the reigning Coach of the Season allow his new signings, except Bokang Thlone, to walk straight into the starting XI without fighting much for it.
Hunt dismantled last season’s fierce central midfield pairing of Thabang Monare and Xola Mlambo just like he did Ntshangase and Ben Motshwari the season before. But this psychological battle worked last year as Ntshangase and Motshwari were in beast mode once they got the chance after waiting on the wings in the first half of the season.
The same happened with Phakamani Mahlambi and James Keene. The two strikers were deadly upon their return from injuries to take over where Gabadinho Mhango and Eleazer Rodgers left off.
The problem this season is that the new signings Hunt has fielded either haven’t played here before, like Slavko Damjanovic from Montenegro, or have been away for a long time - like Steven Pienaar and Daylon Claasen. They need time to adjust. Hunt’s sending off didn’t help the club as he missed their two league games.
“The thing is that most of the pressure in the club is internal and can’t be seen like in those clubs who have a large following and fans voice their frustration in the stands,” Ntshangase said.
“The pressure we have is mostly understood by the guys who have been here a long time because this team had gone for a long time without winning the league. Now that we have won it, we want to ensure that it happens regularly because we know where this team comes from.
"The more time the new players spend with us the more they will adapt and the better the understanding will be in terms of how we play and what this team is all about.”