Completely overlooked when winger Jongi Nokwe scored his record four Tri-Nations tries on Saturday was that the Cheetahs wing calls Khayelitsha home, illustrating what a loss the No 11 speedster is to Cape rugby and the Stormers franchise.
And Nokwe broke his silence on the frustration of Cape rugby, life in the township as a rugby star and the one man who kept faith in him, allowing him to fulfil his Springbok dream.
Dale Granger writes for the Cape Argus that speaking from his rugby base of Bloemfontein where he is recovering from the ankle injury he collected in the act of scoring his fourth try in the 53-8 rout of the Wallabies at Coca-Cola Park, Nokwe spoke of his rise to stardom.
What sets Nokwe apart from almost every other Super 14-calibre rugby player in South Africa is that he has always lived in the township and still flies back to the Cape at the first opportunity to see his girlfriend, aunt and uncle, who share his home in Khayelitsha.
This year the Stormers were left ruing their decision to let the winger go as he emerged as the third highest try-scorer in the Super 14 (with five tries) even though his new team, the Cheetahs, finished second last on the log.
Nokwe played wing for the Stormers under Kobus van der Merwe two seasons ago, but blew hot and cold while finding his feet in his debut season to Super rugby, and wasn’t kept on the books at Newlands.
To all intents and purposes his career in the big league looked over as he trudged back to his home union Boland with his mentor, Hawies Fourie, the one man who always believed in his talent and backed his ability.
When Fourie joined the Cheetahs as their backline coach, Nokwe soon followed.
However, the normally coy Nokwe, who used to travel two hours a day on trains, buses and taxis to get to training in Wellington from Khayelitsha, spoke about his early frustrations in rugby, scoring those four tries and his time spent with the Springboks this season.
“I was disappointed last year when the Stormers never renewed my Super 14 contract. But I just told myself it was not the end of the world and believed that I would get another chance to play Super 14 with another province. Then when I got the call I decided in an instant to come to Bloemfontein.
“I discovered a big difference in rugby in Bloemfontein to the Cape. The management of the Cheetahs are patient and more relaxed and so are the supporters. If you play well this week, but then badly next week, it’s not the end of your career.
“In Cape Town you feel that you’ve got to perform every week or you’re gone and they don’t have patience with you. In my first year of Super rugby in 2006 I remember not having a good game against the Brumbies there were a lot of issues and then I was dropped.”
So the Khayelitsha Express, a confidence player low on self-esteem, went back to Boland, where Fourie, who first met him at a garage near the airport and signed him in 2003, welcomed him back with open arms.
“If there is one thing I’ve got to say to Hawies it is a thank you very much. He is the one guy who always believed in me as a rugby player. At one stage at Boland I was out for six months after a car accident. I came back and he put me straight back into the starting line-up. Initially I did not play well, but Hawies was patient and said he knew what I could do,” said Nokwe.
In Nokwe, WP missed a golden marketing opportunity of expanding their fan base in the township, where Nokwe says “some of the people like rugby, but they like soccer too. These days I would say more understand rugby than before.”
The next time Nokwe returns to Khayelitsha it will be as a Springbok hero who woke up a different man on Sunday morning as a record Tri-Nations try scorer.
“The four weeks I spent with the Springboks was like being with a family. Everybody was great, but Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and Conrad Jantjes were particularly helpful when I needed advice.
“Jean is such a nice guy with so much experience who I really look up to. On Saturday he said to me when I got injured ‘please, we really need you. If you can play, please stay on’. That made me feel really good,” said Nokwe.
Nokwe also spoke about the disappointment of going on the end-of-year tour with the Springboks in 2004, only to hold tackle bags – a disastrous transformation exercise which Fourie said had set him back psychologically by at least a year.
“Yes, I was disappointed in 2004. I was in the Bok squad but then not even regarded as good enough to play Super 12 rugby (in 2005). But I told myself if I just worked harder, maybe my chance would come.”
This week, of course, the rugby world is at Nokwe’s feet and he said his confidence was soaring.
“The media have been phoning me for interviews and I’m feeling really good,” he said. On Saturday he will sit on the sidelines with a bruised ankle and play no part in the Currie Cup battle between WP and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
“I can’t wait to get back to Currie Cup action, particularly as I’ve never played in a semi-final or a final.
“But what I really, really want is to play more Test rugby. It’s one thing making it as a Springbok and being in and out. Now I want to stay there.”Tweet