Sibusiso Mjikeliso – Sport24
Just three years before he became the first Springbok to score a try in a Rugby World Cup final, Makazole Mapimpi strode sheepishly into a hotchpotch collection of players for pre-season training.
The team were the Southern Kings and they were preparing for the 2017 Super Rugby season, their “Last Dance” in the competition, but they could have easily been called the “SA Barbarians”.
A lot of them were starved of game time at other, bigger franchises, or, in Mapimpi’s case, came from a pretty much derelict union – Border – that houses some of the best raw talent under its rubble.
They would become an orchestra of a fun-loving travelling band, playing some beautiful, if sometimes suicidal, rugby.
Their conductor, flyhalf Lionel Cronje, hadn’t played rugby for eight months prior and their coach, Deon Davids, wasn’t given an ice cube’s hope in hell to get them more than two wins; his tally in 2016.
“It’s a funny story, actually. When I was released from the Sharks and going to the Kings, I chatted to my brother (Pierre) and we were looking at the Kings squad that they put together at the time,” Cronje recalls.
“My brother follows all rugby, from juniors all the way to international level. He saw Coyi Banda and Makazole Mapimpi in the Vodacom Cup and he said to me: ‘That oke (Mapimpi) is going to be unbelievably good.’
“I was like, who are you talking about? Who is this ‘oke’? I never knew him. But three weeks into pre-season I phoned my brother and told him how unbelievable he really was – his speed, his anticipation for the game.”
Mapimpi, playing on the right wing, scored on debut for the Kings that day. And though they lost 39-26 to the Jaguares, he had made an instant mark.
He would continue the trick of scoring in his debut matches long after that breakthrough season, for the Cheetahs, Sharks and, eventually, the Springboks.
“He’s very intuitive,” Cronje says.
“People think that opportunistic tries like the ones Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers scored are just by luck. But people really need to have a feel for the game to put themselves in those positions and to put away those opportunities.
“Makazole was very in-tune with that side of the game. His ability to put himself in the right position to score tries is what makes him very special.
“Once or twice it’s luck but when a guy is scoring 18 to 20 tries a season, you’ve got to give him credit for the intuitive nature that he’s got for the game.”
Cronje was a Queen’s College prodigious talent, almost peerless in his age-group at the time. Those who saw him play had no doubt that he would soar.
But injuries and battling to fit into most professional teams he played for (Western Province, Stormers, Bulls, Brumbies, Lions and Sharks) meant he ended up at the Kings. By then he had stopped pretending and trying to play the kind of rugby that didn’t suit him.
The shackles – and all bets – were off. If one move sums up Cronje’s renaissance, it was his Magic Johnson-esque, swivel-around-the-back then grubber, assist for Malcolm Jaer against the Western Force in 2017. It was all sorts of audacious and stupendous.
“I knew I had the backing of the coaches and players to kick a grubber or to keep trying something innovative,” he says.
“That was motivated by a guy like (skills guru) Dave Williams, who is doing wonders with the Sharks on attack. You will probably see the same with Curwin Bosch, Aphelele Fassi, Lukhanyo Am and Mapimpi.
“It would have been really awesome to stick together for another year or two just to revive rugby in the Eastern Cape, maybe make a Super Rugby playoff and give people there something to cheer for.
“We won six games but the cool thing was that we managed to develop a culture that was true to the Eastern Cape. But there were bigger reasons at play that didn’t allow for that to happen.”