In the next instalment of our flashback series, SA Rugby magazine reflects on an interview with Aphelele Fassi shortly after the youngster made his Vodacom Super Rugby debut in 2019.
On YouTube, you can find a two-minute highlights package of Aphelele Fassi in action for Dale College. It has been viewed nearly 35 000 times, and for good reason. Since then, the young star has shot through the Sharks’ ranks to quickly establish himself as one of the brightest prospects on the South African rugby horizon.
The YouTube montage also provides some meaningful insight into the natural talents of the utility back. Seen playing at flyhalf, fullback and centre, the footage showcases Fassi marching to his own beat as he can be seen dancing past would-be defenders, flicking backhand passes, launching long-range goal-kicks and generally just having a jol.
In his first year out of school, Fassi found himself drafted straight into the Sharks’ squad, impressing to such an extent that he would be entrusted with a starting berth in the 2018 Currie Cup final when the Durban-based side clinched a shock win over Western Province at Newlands. Having turned just 21 years old in January, Fassi has already lifted South African rugby’s illustrious domestic trophy.
Seemingly gifted with all the raw ingredients necessary to become a great of the game, plenty of fanfare has understandably followed Fassi’s progression at the start of his fledgling career. Of course, many will remember the moment he reeled in Aphiwe Dyantyi after the Springbok superstar had snatched up an intercept in the Currie Cup semi-final at Kings Park. It’s another clip that has been watched thousands of times on YouTube, with Fassi hunting down Dyantyi over a 50m sprint, before completing a superb tackle and then bouncing back to his feet to snap up the loose ball. It was one of those moments that saw South African rugby supporters sitting up and asking: ‘Who is this kid?’
With this in mind, SA Rugby magazine took the opportunity to catch up with Fassi and find out a little more about the speedster, who hails from King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. Like many young children from that part of the country, Fassi grew up having developed an affinity for teams such as the All Blacks and Crusaders, with their attractive brand of rugby providing the inspiration for plenty of youthful games.
‘My first introduction to rugby was really just for fun because my friends and two elder brothers played rugby,’ he says. ‘But it was always part of my upbringing, we’d play among ourselves and we all had a love for the game.’
As the last-born son, Fassi’s full name, Aphelele Onke Okuhle, can be roughly translated to mean ‘all is complete and beautiful’. Following in the footsteps of his siblings, Fassi also conducted his schooling at Dale College, the alumni of former Springboks such as Keegan Daniel, Bjorn Basson and Dyantyi. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression, either, with the lean teenager spending three years in the Dale College 1st XV. Fassi also flourished on the cricket field as a capable all-rounder, who wielded the willow with authority, while chipping in with the ball as a capable medium-pace bowler.
‘I made it to provincial level in cricket, and scored three hundreds in my matric year, but I never really thought I would take it much further after school,’ Fassi reflects. ‘For me, schoolboy rugby was the best thing ever, and I loved every minute of it. So when the offer came around from the Sharks, which was the team I had supported from a young age, it was a dream move.’
Having caught the eye as one of the stars at the annual Kearsney Easter Rugby Festival near Durban, Fassi arrived at the Sharks Academy with a bursary and reputation that preceded him. During the early parts of 2018, Fassi duly emerged as a standout performer for the Sharks XV, scoring four tries in eight games in the Provincial Rugby Challenge.
When the Currie Cup rolled around, Fassi formed part of a youthful brigade in whom who coach Robert du Preez placed his faith. Coming off the bench in the opening game of the domestic season against the Blue Bulls, Fassi didn’t waste any time in announcing his arrival on the South African rugby scene as he demonstrated superb skill to regather a contestable kick that Manie Libbok had failed to collect. As Fassi darted away from the defence with the tryline beckoning, he shot an arm in the air along with a beaming smile, before launching into a swandive that resembled Chris Ashton’s famous try celebrations.
‘He’s a special kid and very talented,’ Du Preez said with a smile after that memorable Currie Cup debut. ‘We played him on the wing, but he is actually a fullback. It’s great to have a guy like that in your setup. I’m not concerned about starting him at all… he can start any time.’
As it turned out, Fassi would go on to start two games at fullback and one on the wing, racking up three tries along the way. By all accounts, a star was born.
‘To play in the Currie Cup final was a remarkable experience,’ Fassi reflects. ‘Running out at a full Newlands stadium, the atmosphere was wonderful. And for me, at such a young age, to have a won a Currie Cup is a very special achievement that I will always cherish.’
With genuine pace, quick feet, solid defence, a reliable boot and strong pass, Fassi is one of those naturally gifted players who appear to be most threatening when roaming at fullback. It’s also where the Sharks backed him to consistently start over the early part of Super Rugby.
‘When you talk about raw talent, he epitomises that,’ says Sharks skill coach AB Zondagh. ‘He had been identified at school level, and from the day he arrived at the Sharks he has just got better and better. He started with a very good base, coming from a school that seems to produce excellent rugby players who have an excellent feel for the game.
‘I’d say that’s exactly the type of player he is. He seems to have an intuition about the game, almost as if he knows which way the ball is going to bounce,’ Zondagh adds with a chuckle. ‘He obviously he still has a lot to learn and is playing at a very high level, and you have to become accustomed to the pressures associated with that, but in terms of his range of skills, he has everything: he’s got the pass, kick, speed, a good step and is not afraid to tackle. He’s a very well-rounded player at such a young age, and it’s players like that who make my job very easy.’
Standing 1.89m tall, and weighing in at 86kg, Fassi is far from a hulking outside back, but his height has helped in enabling him to harness aerial skills that are a real strength of his game.
‘When he came on to the scene last year, compared to where he is now, I’d say he is already a very different player,’ Zondagh says. At his age, you don’t want him to put on too much weight. You want him to keep that agility and speed. That’s a mistake that can be made when youngsters see other guys running through opposition, but his strengths are his quick feet and ability to manipulate players with ball in hand. Defensively he is strong and reads the game so well that he also gets into good positions to make tackles.’
With a player as talented as this, there is always the looming fear factor that he could be moved around the backline in search of his best position, but for now, the good news is that the player himself is very clear on the matter: ‘Fullback is my main position,’ Fassi insists. ‘It gives me more opportunity to attack and identify space coming from the back. I think one of my strong points is my aerial skills, but then something I’m working on is my tactical awareness both with and without the ball.’
Zondagh agrees that Fassi has the attributes to wreak havoc in the No 15 jersey. ‘He’s lethal at fullback, I think he relishes the time and space he has there. It’s a good position for him to gain confidence at the start of his professional career, but he is also the sort of player who can play on the wing, or even come closer to the action. He really has all the capabilities.’
The future looks bright for the latest rising star to emerge from the South African and Eastern Cape conveyer belt of rugby talent. Yet the quietly spoken and unassuming youngster is taking nothing for granted
‘One of my goals is just to be really consistent in Super Rugby, and to try and to tick little boxes in each game. Obviously I’d love to put myself in a position to play for the Springboks one day, but that can only come if I put in the hard work, and that’s what I plan to do.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images