'It means a lot for the boys from the rural area who didn’t go to private school'

Makazole Mapimpi, who used to walk 10km to school, has had a stunning rise with the Springboks.

SHY, SOFTLY-SPOKEN but now a genuine rugby superstar.

Makazole Mapimpi’s try against England last night in Tokyo made it 14 scores in 14 Tests so far for the 29-year-old and it also underlined his ever-growing class.

A vital moment in the Springboks powering to glory, it was also – rather remarkably – the first try a South African has scored in a World Cup final. The Boks’ 1995 and 2007 successes came without a try in the deciders, and it was fitting that Mapimpi was the man to finally dot down.

makazole-mapimpi-celebrates Mapimpi celebrates the Boks' World Cup triumph. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Mapimpi’s journey is one of those that sums up how this particular Springboks squad has captured the imagination of so many at home in South Africa.

The rapid wing hails from a village called Tsholomnqa in a rural area of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Mapimpi was far from a renowned star in his youth, completely out of sight and out of mind.

Indeed, Mapimpi had to walk 10km just to get to school every day, so professional rugby was far from his own mind.

He only popped onto the radar as a 24-year-old, when he earned selection for the Border Bulldogs in the 2014 Vodacom Cup. The next two years saw him show try-scoring qualities, earning him a Super Rugby deal with the Southern Kings in 2017.

Even in a poor team, Mapimpi scored 11 tries in 14 starts before joining the Cheetahs and continuing his remarkable strike rate with 10 tries in 13 games in the Guinness Pro14, including scores against Ulster and Connacht.

Even still, few would have predicted Mapimpi would be a star in the 2019 World Cup. Having played as a centre and fullback in his youth, Mapimpi had much to learn. Rassie Erasmus, however, had different ideas.

With Mapimpi moving to the Sharks and impressing again in the 2018 Super Rugby season, he was handed his Springboks debut as a 27-year-old against Wales in the US in June 2018.

Even at that point, Erasmus said that Mapimpi “couldn’t catch a ball” and was extremely raw. His aerial and positional skills required intensive work. But the talent was clear to Erasmus and his assistant coach, Mzwandile Stick, has invested major time into improving Mapimpi’s skills.

toyota-cheetahs-makazole-mapimpi-is-tackled-by-munsters-andrew-conway Mapimpi playing for the Cheetahs against Munster in 2017. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“When you get to the highest level you need more skills to compete against the better sides,” said Mapimpi on Saturday night. “I’m not going to lie, I had a lot of work to do when I first arrived at the Boks.

“I trained hard with coach Stick. That was an important part of my career and I have to credit coach Stick for his input.”

Mapimpi scored a try on debut in Washington and essentially hasn’t stopped dotting down since as he has improved in remarkably rapid fashion, with his six scores at this World Cup ensuring he finished one behind Wales’ Josh Adams on the top try-scorer list.

His wonderful try last night, when he chipped ahead accurately for Lukhanyo Am to regather and fire off a pass back to him, was the clear highlight, capping a stunning rise for the quiet man from the Eastern Cape countryside.

Horrifically, Mapimpi has lost close family members along the way in life. His mother passed away after a car accident, his sister died due to a brain illness, and his brother was electrocuted as he tried to steal power cables.

No one could begrudge him his stunning rise to success. 

“This means a lot for me because I’m coming from a long way,” said an emotional Mapimpi after the Boks’ 32-12 win. “I’m blessed. I’m from a rural area, I didn’t make the South Africa Schools teams.

“But I went into the good hands of a good coach who always motivated me. I’m always asking, ‘What can I do?’ and I had good people around me to motivate me and give me advice.

makazole-mapimpi-celebrates-his-try Mapimpi scored six tries at the World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“For me, it’s been a long, long, long, long journey but I think God is good. I’ve been working hard.

“This is a big achievement for me, it’s my first World Cup. It means a lot, not for me, but for the boys from the rural area, for the boys who didn’t go to private school. I feel like it’s not about me, it’s not just for me to play rugby.

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“I remember five years back, I was playing Sunday league rugby at a club. There’s no professional league in the rural areas and one of my friends told me, ‘Listen, you can make it, man’.

“I told the guy, ‘Listen, how can I make it, man? There’s no one here for me. There’s no one watching me.’ The guy said, ‘Just keep going. You can make it’.”

“For me, it was funny because I was too far from the system first of all. Then I got a call from a team, then I played in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and then I got a call from Border and afterward, I played for Border in 2014, 2015.

“I saw a lot of guys I was playing against went on to Super Rugby, so I told myself one day I can make it because I’m playing against those guys. I was playing in the Currie First Division.

“I told myself, ‘I can make this happen.’ I got a call from the Southern Kings and then it started for me.”

The incredible thing is that Mapimpi rarely looked ill at ease in this World Cup. There were a handful of errors, of course, but he appeared to be at home on the big stage.

england-v-south-africa-2019-rugby-world-cup-final-yokohama-stadium Source: David Davies

In that sense, the 29-year-old agreed with Erasmus’ sentiment about the pressure on the Boks being put in perspective by what they have all seen in their troubled country.

“It is a lot of pressure but, for me, I think I’m blessed,” said Mapimpi. “I’ve seen a lot of things happen and I think about some things that affect us in South Africa. I’ve seen a lot of things happen, things I don’t like.

“There’s a lot of pressure, we want things for South Africa, we fight for that, for our country, I think it’s true for all of us.

“There’s a lot of bad things in South Africa that affect all of us Springboks – girls get raped, there’s murders. I felt those things and this achievement is for the team. We worked hard for our country.”

Originally published at 06.31

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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