Aphiwe Dyantyi is eager to establish himself as a world-class wing, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
As winters go, it has been a wild one for Aphiwe Dyantyi.
Plucked from the Currie Cup only last season, he was thrown into the frenzied world of Super Rugby and made his Springbok debut just a few months later. If he’s still shaking his head at the speed of it all, things aren’t showing signs of letting up. Next, he will be in pursuit of the Rugby Championship crown where the brooding beasts of the world game, the All Blacks, roam, as do Australia and Argentina.
‘Just amazing,’ says the Lions wing of his rapid ascension to the elite level. ‘Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of me; it’s all a bit unreal,’ he adds.
The experience of playing in three recent Tests against England only stirred his competitive juices. He wants much more.
‘Seeing the other guys on the field … Siya [Kolisi], Duane [Vermeulen], they’re all so professional. I was exposed to so many experiences. You can’t trade that for anything.’
If the series veered from bewildering to brilliant and back again, it was much the same for Dyantyi. The speed merchant scored a try on debut in Johannesburg, but he also found himself in the middle of a defensive muddle as the Boks were scorched 24-3 early on before fighting back to prevail 42-39.
Things were little better in the second match in Bloemfontein, where the Boks conceded two early tries, again the result of some harum-scarum defence.
Dyantyi was again in the middle of the fightback and although the Boks again found a way to win, it’s a ‘method’ unlikely to catch on. The wing has been on the fast track to fame, and so has his game. He says the technical nuances are more acute at international level, in line with coach Rassie Erasmus’ homespun philosophy of how levels of rugby work.
As Dyantyi explains, Erasmus believes that in a regular club match, perhaps three or four of 30 players are very good. At Currie Cup level, this rate increases to 12-15 and at Super Rugby around 15-17 are excellent. Yet at Test level, invariably all 30 are world class.
‘It’s very hard to get that elusive break, or to spot a lazy defender,’ Dyantyi reckons of Test rugby. ‘You must be “switched on” constantly.’
The shepherding by experienced fullback Willie le Roux was crucial in helping him and fellow newbie S’bu Nkosi through their frantic Test baptisms.
‘He was so good; a real joker at times. He kept us calm. He’d say, “AP, you’re really good; just play your normal game. You’re better than these [England] guys.” That made a huge difference,’ he says.
Dyantyi, who turns 24 on 26 August, says it also helped to have Swys de Bruin, the paternal Lions coach, in the Bok camp.
‘He encouraged me to play my natural game. Coach Swys doesn’t over-coach, but I learned a lot. There were moments of doubt, but I played with more confidence as it went on.’
He fitted comfortably into the team environment, rooming with Warrick Gelant and hitting it off with Nkosi, no doubt because of their related positions, pressures and expectations. And having tasted the rarefied pleasures of Test rugby, Dyantyi is dead keen for more of the same.
‘As a franchise player, you sometimes compare yourself to only your teammates. Now I compare myself to the Sonny Bill Williamses of the world. The bar is set far higher; I try to be better than them.’
He accepts that with the glory comes the pressure, especially at Test level. He accepts, too, that he’s likely to make mistakes along the way. Not that he’s too bothered.
‘Making mistakes can be good; it means you’re trying things,’ he rationalises. ‘Defence coach Jacques [Nienaber] says the more you try, the more things will work, even if only two out of five things do at the start. Each effort puts you in a better position.
‘This doesn’t mean I’ll be much different in the Rugby Championship – I’ll be trying to do what I’ve always done. I have a long way to go; I’m excited.’
After the first two Tests against England, where the Bok backline defence was exposed, Erasmus wasn’t overly concerned.
‘It’s just experience,’ he told reporters. ‘It’s like putting a short putt in your backyard; when it’s only you watching, you’ll nail it every single time. But if you do it in front of 50,000 people under pressure, the only way you can get used to that is to feel it under that situation and make those mistakes.’
Nienaber took great heart from Dyantyi’s form against England.
‘What stood out was his tenacity in the first Test. There were defensive errors, but not among the backs alone. After 20 minutes, Aphiwe didn’t try to hide – he put himself out there and was quite special. Against a Jonny May or an Owen Farrell, if you’re just a bit off your game, they’ll catch you out.
‘It’s a tough place to be at 24-3 down, but Aphiwe showed his mental toughness. It’s like war games at this level – the only difference is you aren’t killing anyone.’
If Dyantyi is reluctant to talk opposition team specifics amid the Rugby Championship, he is happy to clarify South Africa’s overarching rationale. There is a drive to beat every team they play, but at its root is a greater desire: to build a strong base for the World Cup. Results are thus less important than getting the correct systems in place to mount a serious challenge in Japan in 2019.
Erasmus is a ‘process’ man, which means everything he does is designed for maximum gain at the World Cup. It’s an important distinction, because it means there might be several bumps in the road to Tokyo.
Dyantyi’s goal is to be part of this journey and to enhance his reputation, even allowing for mistakes along the way. The new man on the Bok block has always been compared to local players, but that’s not enough any more. He wants to be compared with the best in the world. Earning respect in the Rugby Championship will add sustenance to that.
These may be early days yet, but he’s in a hurry to get there. Fast by mind and fast by nature.
– This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.