After facing many challenges throughout his life and rugby career, JOHN GOLIATH hopes Hilton Lobberts gets one more shot at the big time with the Stormers.
Lobberts is the one rugby player who is deeply entrenched in my heart. We’re from the same hood in Paarl East on the other side of the Berg River, which divided the Boland town during apartheid.
But we grew up in completely different circumstances.
My parents were teachers and I had a proper middle-class upbringing. There was enough love, encouragement and resources to keep me on the straight and narrow to help make something of my life.
But, a stone’s throw away from my parents’ house on Charleston Hill, Lobberts grew up in the flats of Chicago, a neighbourhood in Paarl which is far removed from the luxurious wine farms and other tourist attractions in this beautiful part of the world. It’s better known for gangsterism, drugs and unemployment.
But Lobberts, who was raised by his fierce grandmother, rose above his circumstances and despite also struggling with a learning disability, became a star. Rugby was his way out of Chicago, and the boy from New Orleans Secondary starred for Boland at the Craven Week, which launched his career.
I interviewed Lobberts while working for a small community newspaper in Paarl after he made the SA Schools side. His story was a remarkable one, and remains a great example of what can be achieved if a talented kid from the hood gets the necessary support and love to thrive.
In 2006, two years after our interview, he became a Springbok at the age of 20 following a string of top performances for the Vodacom Blue Bulls. His fearless style of play and abrasive nature as a loose forward appealed to Jake White, while opponents around the country feared his ball-carrying and his uncompromising defence.
There is a brilliant anecdote about the fear Lobberts instilled in the opposition. After moving to Western Province and the Stormers, he played for WP against SWD in a Vodacom Cup game in George. Walking to the first lineout of the game, one of the SWD forwards looked at the Province players and said: ‘Julle almal se ma se … behalwe joune Hilton!’
Unfortunately, though, after moving to the Cape in 2009, he didn’t quite manage to reach those lofty heights again for various reasons, including many injuries. The light that shone so bright began to fade, as he then featured mostly in the Vodacom Cup for WP.
These days he finds himself back in the Cape following spells at Boland, Italian side San Dona, Griquas, Cheetahs and the Pumas. He has been contracted to play club rugby at Hamiltons, but found himself featuring for the Stormers in a warm-up match after an invitation from coach John Dobson.
But the future doesn’t look great for Lobberts, who at 33 should be looking forward to retirement from the game. Instead he is looking for a gig to try to sustain him, which is in stark contrast to some of his peers.
Dobson last week said the rugby system in this country fails a lot of players such as Lobberts, which is something SA Rugby needs to address as the custodians of the game in this country.
Having fought hard to rise above his circumstances, it’s a real shame that Lobberts didn’t play more games for the Springboks or in Super Rugby. But maybe there is a fairytale ending, which can match the start of the story.
Hopefully he can roll back the years and fight for a spot in the Stormers pack. It’s not going to be easy, though, as the Cape side have some wonderful loose forwards and locks.
But how lovely would it not be to hear another player in Super Rugby say, ‘… behalwe jy, Hilton!’