Aphiwe Dyantyi was told he was too small to play rugby after school, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG. Now he is making it big with the Lions.
Having settled into a seat in the cavernous Joburg Stadium after a spot of lunch with his Lions teammates, Aphiwe Dyantyi immediately makes it clear that the image of him as a rags-to-riches story isn’t true.
‘The newspapers say I’ve defied the odds, but it isn’t a thing,’ he says. ‘I had humble beginnings, but I never went to bed without having had a plate of food. My mom managed to raise four boys pretty much on her own and did a good job.’
Having made that point, Dyantyi’s story is nevertheless full of twists and turns and happenstance that have brought him reckoning as one of local rugby’s most thrilling new talents. His name was on everyone’s lips after a scorching start to the Super Rugby season; the general refrain being, ‘Where the heck did he come from?’
It’s just as well his teammates call him ‘AP’, his full name being Aphiwe Odwa Amaqwathi Akusenani Dyantyi, which loosely translates as ‘being grateful for the gift of a fourth son’ – despite mom Nomhle having yearned for a girl.
Dyantyi’s story begins in the Eastern Cape where he had a mostly happy, carefree childhood. His father, a military man who had played flank for Clarkebury school in Ngcobo, which Nelson Mandela once attended, was largely absent and it was left to his mum to raise Aphiwe and his three older brothers. Many an afternoon was spent outside as the boys tried to emulate their heroes, whether with a cricket bat or rugby or soccer ball, salad days for four boys brimming with energy.
A favourite pastime of Aphiwe’s was being dispatched to the local spaza shop to buy bread, a five-minute walk that would take him 30 minutes because he’d throw the loaf around while imagining himself as Tana Umaga or Carlos Spencer.
His mom enrolled him in boarding school in Grade 3, determined that he make something of his life.
Dyantyi is a good talker and speaks animatedly about his time at school, where he excelled in athletics and rugby, whether at flyhalf (his favourite position), wing or fullback. There was something of the maverick spirit within him and at one point the housemaster pulled his mom aside.
‘This kid’s pretty special,’ she was told. She was encouraged to send him to one of the big sport schools like Grey High, Selborne College, Queen’s College or Dale College. He ended up at Dale, one of the Eastern Cape’s grand institutions, in King William’s Town.
Despite being physically small, he made a big impression in pick-up games with his schoolmates, who assured the coaches he could play. Colours for Border soon followed, as did a run at the U13 Craven Week. With his mom a constant support, he was on his way.
Desperate to play for the Dale 1st XV in the school’s 150th year, in 2011, Dyantyi was instead left disappointed. Two players were ahead of him in the pecking order, one of them the Craven Week flyhalf; plus his cavalier approach was frowned upon.
Having bombed academically to that point, he then threw himself into his books. From finishing among the bottom 150 in his previous grade, he ended among the top 20 in his final school year.
If he was unsure about his place in the rugby firmament, his life took on greater meaning in 2012 when he underwent ulwaluko, the circumcision ceremony when Xhosa boys go to the so-called mountain for one month. It’s a deeply private ritual; suffice to say that Dyantyi identifies his month in the bush as a major turning point. The rite taught him principles and reaffirmed his independent streak.
Unsurprisingly, he soon made the decision to move to Joburg, following in the steps of his three brothers who had all found success in the big smoke. One of them, Lubalalo, had always predicted that little Aphiwe would play for Bafana Bafana or the Springboks.
Determined to put his failings behind him, Dyantyi enrolled at the University of Johannesburg for a marketing degree, which will soon culminate in his honours.
If he wasn’t in class or throwing a ball around, he’d be hanging with his brothers Lubalalo, Bongani and Mawande – ‘my best friends,’ he says with evident pride. The trio attend every home game, cheering on little brother.
Dyantyi dabbled in koshuis rugby, played Varsity Cup and the Provincial Rugby Challenge, and even turned out for UJ’s 1st XI soccer side, but he was a rugby itinerant, neither here nor there.
That changed after former UJ Young Guns coach Mac Masina, the ex-Lions centre, sat him down and convinced him that he could make a real fist of things on the wing.
‘He told me to keep an open mind and brought me back into contention. He got me to wing and from there I’ve never looked back.’
It helped, too, that a sport bursary was quickly thrown in.
Others who helped shape Dyantyi were Gcobani Bobo and Joey Mangalo, the Lions defence coach.
Having emerged strongly in last year’s Currie Cup, Dyantyi took succour from Swys de Bruin, who told him not to change as a player – ‘just be coachable,’ the coach urged the 23-year-old. Ever since, he’s fed off the energy and experience of teammates like Elton Jantjes, Lionel Mapoe, ‘Wazza’ (Warren Whiteley) and Courtnall Skosan, who generously told him, ‘You have a chance to make the No 11 jersey your own.’
Indeed, there are echoes of ex-Lions wing Bryan Habana about him, if not in style then in spark and outrageous dynamism.
Dyantyi looks at Malcolm Marx and marvels at his work ethic. But what drives him more than anything is the overwhelming sense of brotherhood among the squad. It’s tangible when you walk into the team environment, not least an intolerance for anyone being a big deal. Humility is everything.
‘There are nine Springboks here,’ says the man now nudging 90kg and 1.82m. ‘I’m learning so much, like the principles that matter. That’s more valuable than money. If success is a by-product of this, it’s a bonus.’
After a thrilling start to his career, he knows there will be difficult times, like his recent injury layoff because of a torn pectoral muscle.
No one is harder on him than himself, which is why Dyantyi shed tears after the home defeat to the Blues. He blamed himself for narrowly failing to score a critical try and was so inconsolable when he later saw Blues coach (and boyhood hero) Umaga that he couldn’t shake his hand.
Then he thought of his mum, who always preached the virtue of keeping your head above water. He promptly banished the memory of the loss.
The boy they said was too small and too flamboyant has done good. And he’s here to stay.
– This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale 21 May.