Recently retired Cecil Afrika will go down as one of the greatest sevens players, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
The tributes that flew in after it was made official that Cecil Afrika would be hanging up his Blitzboks boots told their own story.
World Cup-winning former Springbok wing Bryan Habana tweeted that Afrika was ‘inspiring, passionate, professional and a role model to us all’, while sevens coach Ben Ryan called him+ a ‘Rolls Royce of a player’ who was hugely respected among his peers.
These are fitting words for a man who rose from humble beginnings in Missionvale near Port Elizabeth to redefine what it meant to be a sevens player.
It therefore cannot have been an easy decision for the Springbok Sevens management to make when they decided not to extend Afrika’s contract, which expired on 1 July.
Regrettably, he departs without a farewell match. The plan was to offer Afrika a final swansong at the Tokyo Olympic Games, but the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the Olympics being postponed until 2021.
‘It was a pretty difficult decision that I had to make,’ Afrika tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Before the season started, I told myself this is going to be my last season of sevens. If I made the squad, the Olympics was going to be my last tournament.’
Blitzboks coach Neil Powell says the team’s management feel they need to start planning for their next generation of players.
‘It is always a difficult decision. We are definitely a family and it’s never easy to decide when to call it a day on any player’s career. It was tough for me as a player and it’s tough now to make that decision as a coach who is part of the management staff.
‘We hope we are making the best decision to benefit the system. Sometimes we need to take the individual out of it and make the decision that will be best for the future.
‘Obviously, Cecil was an amazing player. But when you get a bit older, you tend to fall off the pace a little bit in terms of intensity, agility, speed and decision-making,’ Powell adds. ‘It happened to us all, to Kyle Brown, Frankie Horn, it happened to me. Sometimes we almost hang in there for one year too long and you maybe don’t play a season as well as the previous seasons.’
Having started his professional career with the Griffons in 2006, when the softly-spoken Afrika had a culture shock when he arrived at the Sevens academy in 2009.
‘It was completely different to what I was used to at the Griffons,’ Afrika says. ‘We just used to play. There was a gameplan but we used to have only one meeting a day. Then you go to the Springbok Sevens, where there are two meetings a day where we are talking about what we are going to do at training and about the culture. This was something I had never been exposed to, like values, what we stand for and where we are going. I just wanted to play rugby. I didn’t really understand those dynamics at the time.
‘I am an introvert, if I can put it that way – I am quite shy because I stutter. But I had to embrace that and the guys accepted me for who I am and how I speak. That really gave me the confidence to say what I needed to say.’
To help him adjust, Afrika says he ‘stole with his eyes’ at training, by watching more experienced members of the squad like Mzwandile Stick, Paul Delport, Renfred Dazel, Vuyo Zangqa and Gio Aplon.
‘Mzwandile was the guy who really mentored me,’ Afrika says. ‘That first season I was covering sweeper and flyhalf and he really guided me. When I made mistakes, he would shout at me but I knew that was part of learning. You can only get better if you make mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes there were harsh words, but it was all about making sure that I learned as quickly as possible and made use of that opportunity. I am really grateful for those guys who really helped me through those first couple of seasons.’
Stick tells SA Rugby magazine that he and Afrika formed an almost instant connection through their roots and that he is incredibly proud to have played a role in Afrika’s growth.
‘Cecil came in as a youngster and one thing that made us connect was that he was also from Port Elizabeth,’ Stick says. ‘He was a very skinny boy, but he knew what he wanted and was very, very disciplined. In his first year, we were roommates. I really wanted to help him because I could see that he had big goals and wanted to achieve.
‘We did everything together. Sometimes we drove home to PE together. Because of his character I never doubted him. He was destined for greatness.’
Afrika made an instant impact on the sevens scene, with his first try coming as part of a hat-trick in his first home tournament in George in 2009. The following season he was the Sevens Series top points scorer and was named Sevens Player of the Year.
‘His learning curve was amazing,’ Powell says. ‘Cecil was very much an introvert but I think he gets his confidence on the field. If you hear how he speaks and communicates on the field, you honestly won’t think he’s an introvert. When he is on the field, he is in the zone and where he is comfortable, where he can start talking. He has got an amazing ability to read the game, which is something that not a lot of players have.’
Afrika would form part of the Blitzboks leadership over the next 10 years, helping the side win back-to-back series titles in 2017 and 2018, while winning Commonwealth Games gold in 2014 and Olympic bronze in 2014.
‘Cecil always had an amazing playmaking ability,’ Powell said. ‘He is very different to Justin Geduld, for example. Where Justin has 80% X factor and 20% creating opportunities for the players around him, Cecil was the opposite, he was 80% creating opportunities – an out-and-out playmaker.
‘He gave that extra punch in our attacking play because of his ability to read the game one step ahead and seeing opportunities for the support players around him. I saw that in him from the very first month or two that he spent with us in the sevens set-up back in 2008.’
However, it was not only his playmaking ability that made him such a hit. As Stick explains, Afrika had an incredible work-rate on defence and put in tackles that defied his slender frame.
‘When you look at how he is built, you tend to underestimate him,’ Stick says. ‘But even with his build, he has one of the biggest hearts on the field. To be very honest, Cecil surprised me at times with some of the big tackles he would make; tackles that I, with all of my muscles, couldn’t. Cecil had a big heart. Everything he did on the field, he did at 100%. He will give everything he has got.’
As for life after rugby, Afrika is turning his focus to the coffee business he started with former teammates and captain Kyle Brown and Philip Snyman.
‘I was fortunate and blessed enough to meet Kyle – we were roommates for around eight seasons – and Philip. The people who follow us know how passionate we are about coffee. One day we decided, why don’t we start something we are passionate about and that we value. We came up with this idea of starting a coffee brand called Eighteen, which is the added total of our jersey numbers – 2, 6 and 10 – and the perfect espresso is made of 18 grams of coffee.
‘It is really important for players to make sure that they start a business while playing rugby, not only after, to make sure that once you get a long-term or career-ending injury that you have something to fall back on.’
Afrika adds that while he is wanting to spend more time with his family, he would love to get involved in player mentorship.
‘I would really love to share my knowledge of the game I have learned over these 12 years. Even if it isn’t part of the Springbok Sevens set-up, I am more than willing to contribute to the next generation coming through. I will always keep fit and ready, so if there is an opportunity for the Olympic Games in 2021 … you never know.
‘I have been truly blessed to be a part of Springbok Sevens for 12 years. There have been highs and lows. I have been able to reflect on the good and bad memories. But I am truly grateful for the journey. Sometimes I sit and just laugh, thinking about the places I have been to and the moments that were special. As much as I am looking forward to the next journey, I will really miss the guys.’
Sevens series career in numbers
345 – Number of matches Afrika played.
1 462 – Points he scored as South Africa’s top point-scorer, an average of 4.62 per match.
179 – Tries he scored in his 12-year career.
282 – Conversions he kicked.