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'Rugby was a fairytale but not a reality... I was blessed to break that barrier'

23-year-old Vincent Tshituka of the Lions is seen as a possible Springbok back row.

Tshituka is tackled by Owen Farrell during the Lions v Lions clash last summer.
Tshituka is tackled by Owen Farrell during the Lions v Lions clash last summer.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT USED TO be dancing of the ballroom and hip-hop varieties that kept Vincent Tshituka busy but now he’s stepping his way past defenders on the rugby pitches of the United Rugby Championship.

The 23-year-old Emirates Lions back row continued his upward trajectory in the opening block of the URC, most recently impressing in their defeat to Ulster in Belfast, where he made 28 tackles to show that he can deliver an impact on both sides of the ball.

When Munster visit the Lions in Johannesburg in early December, the 6ft 5ins and 110kg Tshituka is sure to be a threat again.

He’s seen as a rising star in South African rugby and a possible Springbok.

That the Congo native has already come this far is a big achievement. Other South African youngsters have their high-level futures mapped out from early on, but Tshituka didn’t even consider professional rugby when he was in Northcliff High School.

“If I go back five years ago, rugby was just a sport I played in high school, not something I thought I could make a career out of,” says Tshituka

“Especially because I wasn’t coming from one of the big high schools or the big boys’ schools in South Africa. It’s like rugby was a fairytale but not a reality. I was blessed to be the one to break that barrier and I feel a lot more will come after me as well.”

Tshituka’s parents, Simon and Fatima, are Congolese and Vincent was born there too but the family moved to South Africa when he was very young, meaning he has spent virtually all of his life in Johannesburg.

vincent-tshituka Tshituka carries against Glasgow. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

During his primary school days, he enjoyed playing as a goalkeeper in soccer – dreaming of playing for Bafana Bafana – while he also took to ballroom dancing. 

The dancing continued in high school, where he started a hip-hop dance group with his friends.

“We were called Fusion X,” says Tshituka. “Dancing was a big thing for me growing up. I did it with my close friends, it was the thing that connected us all.”

He reckons he has lost most of his skills at this stage but jokes that he might pull out a few old tricks for a try celebration if he manages to dot down for the Lions in the URC.

Tshituka says he had “no real idea what rugby was” when he went to Northcliff but there was no soccer on offer so he joined some of his friends for rugby training and was soon loving it.

It helped that he had a competitive personality, having grown up with three brothers – Naisvic is a year older than Vincent, Emmanuel is 21 and also plays in the back row for the Lions, and Kevin is the “baby brother” at 18.

“We’ve always been competitive since the word go,” says Vincent. “We debate about everything and at some stages it gets ridiculous but it’s never really unhealthy. It’s banter to see who has the bragging rights and we have a very tight relationship.

“That’s the same with Emmanuel on the pitch – always competition, always pushing each other, but always respecting the fact that there’s a professional side of it and then the love we have for each other as brothers.”

emmanuel-tshituka-makes-a-break 21-year-old Emmanuel Tshituka also plays for the Lions. Source: Monique Naude/INPHO

Vincent showed Emmanuel that there was a pathway into professional rugby – not that it was always the plan.

Tshituka emerged from school without a big reputation in rugby. He hadn’t been a star at Craven Week or represented the South Africa Schoolboys.

Instead, he headed for the University of Johannesburg to pursue a degree in IT. At that stage, Tshituka was aiming to make his fortune by creating the next big app.

“I’m still brainstorming ideas to this day and I might not be the one creating it but I might still be behind an app or two in my lifetime,” he says.

But rugby kicked on for Tshituka with ‘UJ’ and he was soon playing for the Lions U19 side, advancing into their senior set-up in 2018 to feature in the SuperSport Challenge, which was the second tier of provincial rugby in South Africa at that time. He shone against the likes of the Blue Bulls, Sharks, and Pumas.

“When I managed to stay in that team, I felt like professional rugby could actually be a reality for me and later that year I got my first cap in the Currie Cup. That’s when I knew it was really possible.”

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By 2019, he was playing Super Rugby, starting for the Lions in wins over the Jaguares, Rebels, Waratahs, and Stormers. 2020 looked like bringing more of the same but then the pandemic hit.

There was domestic rugby to keep the South African franchises busy while they were without international competition, and Tshituka also impressed during the Lions’ clash with the British and Irish Lions during the summer.

The Lions lost 56-14 but Tshituka managed to grab one of their two tries on an evening where he was their busiest ball-carrier.

united-rugby-championship-match-zebre-rugby-club-vs-emirates-lions-parma-italy The 23-year-old is seen as a possible Springbok. Source: Massimiliano Carnabuci

“I do love a bit of a loose game too where you can throw offloads or beat your man. I’ve worked hard on my agility over the last few years to be able to beat people one-on-one and create moments of magic in a game.”

Tshituka was also the Lions’ top tackler that day, while he has built a reputation as a breakdown threat.

“I love making tackles, as many as possible, then winning turnovers every now and then. I’m not a fetcher where I’m digging in every ruck but I want to be able to make that decision every now and again but coming away with the ball.”

And now the Lions are part of the URC, allowing Tshituka to experience playing against strong teams like the four Irish provinces.

The Lions’ four-week tour to start the new league saw them beating Zebre before losing to Scarlets, Glasgow, and Ulster, but they’re now looking forward to welcoming Cardiff and Munster down to Joburg in the next two rounds.

The Munster game is one Tshituka is looking forward to with some excitement.

“That’s the best part of it – you get to test yourself against the best in the world,” he says. “The calibre of the competition is at the highest level so it’s the best testing ground to prove to everyone else but also myself that I am good enough.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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