Kings and South Africa A wing Makazole Mapimpi knows his way to the tryline, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Makazole Mapimpi had scored 10 memorable tries in Super Rugby after round 16 of the tournament, but doesn’t hesitate when asked to pick his best. ‘The one against the Reds,’ he says.
That would be the try he scored in the 65th minute of the Kings’ match in Brisbane in mid-April. He received the ball on the Reds’ 10m line, used his pace to get round wing Izaia Perese and then stepped inside, outside, inside and outside again to bamboozle fullback Karmichael Hunt.
Mapimpi dived over in the left-hand corner, got back to his feet and did a celebratory jig. ‘Amazing! Magnificent!’ gushed the Australian commentator, and an embarrassed Hunt would have agreed.
Mapimpi celebrated in similar fashion a month later when he dotted down for South Africa A in their first match against the French Barbarians in Durban. While he didn’t have nearly as much to do as in Brisbane – with Franco Marais putting him away into space – the fact he was wearing a green and gold jersey made it extra-special.
Mapimpi’s breakthrough season came at the age of 26 (he turned 27 on 26 July), which is somewhat surprising considering he played for Border U19 in 2009. It would take him another five years to represent the union’s senior team, and then only after financial problems saw several amateur players brought into the provincial setup. Mapimpi played for Border Urban, the union’s amateur team in 2013, having been a club rugby regular for Winter Roses and Swallows in the Border Super League. Both clubs are in Mdantsane, the township between East London and King William’s Town where Mapimpi was born.
He later moved to Tsholomnqa, just outside East London, and attended Jim Mvabaza Secondary School in King William’s Town.
Mapimpi made an immediate impact for the Border senior team at outside centre, scoring a try on debut against the Sharks XV in the Vodacom Cup, before shifting to wing.
‘He did well in the midfield, but we decided to move him to wing because of his speed and agility,’ says Border coach David Dobela.
‘We knew if we could get the ball quickly to him, he could score a lot of tries, and he did.’
Mapimpi went on to play for Border in two Vodacom Cup and three Currie Cup First Division campaigns, with his performances in the latter part of 2016 earning him selection for the Kings’ Super Rugby squad.
‘After last year’s Super Rugby tournament, I followed our teams [Border, Eastern Province and South Western Districts] in the First Division,’ says Kings coach Deon Davids.
‘One of the players I identified was Makazole, who had an excellent tournament. I was a bit unsure about him because he was 26 and still hadn’t made it at a top province or franchise. I could see he was talented, but I wanted to meet him, to see what he was like and if he had the character required to make the step up to Super Rugby.’
Davids decided he did, although there were aspects of his game he needed to work on. Mapimpi also needed to improve his conditioning and talk more on the field.
‘Makazole has natural speed, strength and a feeling for the game that you can’t coach,’ says Davids. ‘But he was struggling under the high ball and was a bit hesitant in the contact situation and on defence. He has worked hard on those things, but there is still room for improvement in his game. For example, after the South Africa A match in Durban I phoned him and said he was carrying the ball under the wrong arm.
‘Makazole’s conditioning also wasn’t good enough when he first joined the Kings – although he always pressed to run in front – and he was shy. A wing has to be able to communicate with his teammates, so I encouraged him to talk more. He came out of his shell as the season progressed and is a different person now. He’s one of the biggest motivators in the team, speaks a lot on the field and has become a great asset for us. Makazole and [No 8] Andisa Ntsila show what players can achieve if they are given an opportunity.’
Davids believes Mapimpi may never have played Super Rugby, were it not for the Kings, as the other South African franchises had already finalised their 2017 squads when he arrived in Port Elizabeth. Dobela, though, thinks it would just have taken Mapimpi a bit longer to get to that level, as one of the bigger unions would have signed him eventually. In fact, Mapimpi had already caught the eye of Cheetahs director of rugby Rory Duncan during last year’s Vodacom Cup.
‘We first noticed Makazole’s size [90kg and 1.87m], and he produced a good performance against us,’ says Duncan. ‘He is quick, a good ball-carrier and he runs good, hard lines. We approached Border early in the Super Rugby tournament about signing him and they were quite accommodating.’
In early-April, the Cheetahs announced Mapimpi would join them in July. Duncan expects him to perform a similar role to Raymond Rhule, who is likely to be away on Bok duty during the Currie Cup.
‘When you get an opportunity like this, you have to take it,’ says Mapimpi. ‘I’m looking forward to playing for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup Premier Division and I think their ball-in-hand approach to the game will suit me.’ Dobela is disappointed to lose Mapimpi, of course, but happy for him too. The coach accepts the developmental role that a smaller union like Border plays in South African rugby.
‘When Makazole was called up to the Kings after a good Currie Cup First Division campaign, I knew he wouldn’t be at Border for much longer, because the bigger provinces would want to sign him. I also knew he would grab his opportunity at the Kings with both hands. Border want to develop players and help them to maximise their talent. We are happy to help a player like Makazole, who comes from the rural areas, get noticed.’
Davids admits he was surprised when Mapimpi told him he had signed for the Cheetahs.
‘He said they had contacted him after our first or second game in Super Rugby. He sees it as an opportunity to play in the Currie Cup Premier Division, which I understand. The Cheetahs have done some fantastic work in developing young players and he will be in good hands, but I think he would have excelled more in the Eastern Cape, in his own environment.’
As the Super Rugby season progressed, it became apparent the Cheetahs had made a good investment. The Kings were more competitive than many expected – beating the Sunwolves and Waratahs away and the Rebels and Sharks at home before the June break – and Mapimpi cashed in with seven tries.
His reward was selection for the South Africa A squad and he started in their first match against the French Barbarians, at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
‘Makazole will have benefited massively from being with the SA A squad and around some of the best players in the country,’ says Davids. ‘He got to measure himself against an international team and he scored a try. He can use that platform to become one of the best wings in the country.’
Mapimpi’s try-scoring form continued for the Kings when he scored two against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and one against the Bulls in Pretoria, to take his tally for the season to 10. The Kings won both of those matches 31-30, which shows just how much their star wing will be missed.
– This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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