How Mapimpi became Boks’ lethal weapon

What makes Makazole Mapimpi so special? SA Rugby magazine investigates by approaching those closest to the Bok and Sharks star.

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Legendary former Liverpool coach Bill Shankly once had a striker who was addled about the ‘how to’ side of goal-scoring. When the striker approached Shankly with his conundrum, the Scot said: ‘Put the ball in the back of the net then we can talk about it.’

Few players epitomise this fuss-free approach to try-scoring like Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi. He may not be the biggest, fastest or even the most talented, but wherever he has played he has scored tries. Those who have worked with him explained five aspects of what makes South Africa’s first try-scorer in a World Cup final so venomous.

(By the way, Mapimpi means cobra in isiXhosa).

Aled Walters: Former Springbok strength and conditioning coach (speed and conditioning)

The quality you look for first and foremost in an international wing is speed, and he’s obviously got that in abundance. The GPS units show he is consistently either the fastest or within the top three among guys like himself, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi. But he has this ability, and this is where I give the Sharks staff a lot of credit, to repeat these top-end speed exposures multiple times. He’s able to generate these unbelievable speeds within the game – that’s the critical thing and that’s probably one of his biggest strengths. His ability to repeat these efforts shows he recovers extremely quickly, something which is important to our game with the chasing of kicks being a massive element of it. He has an ability to keep on doing that at such a high level throughout the game, playing 80 minutes because of the six-two split. The third thing about him is how professional, how diligent he is off the field. It’s easy to forget how much recovery these guys have to do and I can’t praise Makazole enough. That’s one reason his growth as an international wing has been so rapid. How fast is he? We tracked him at 10.2, 10.3 metres per second as a peak velocity for him. Sometimes I think he leaves plenty in the tank, but I can guarantee you that he’s one of the fastest wings in the world.

David Williams: Sharks assistant coach (game sense)

In terms of his game sense I’d probably summarise it by saying he’s got a sixth sense. You could find someone as fast as he is, who beats defenders, tackles or catches high balls as well as him, but he’s got this sixth sense or feel for the game where he just ends up influencing it in so many moments. Yes, you look at his GPS stats and he’s off the charts, how much he works in training on the field … a lot of guys do a lot of work for no reward; he seems to have that intuitive decision-making and he’s one of the best in the world at that. The fact that he played flyhalf and centre in his youth would have helped massively. When I coach a player it’s about creating subconscious images of different moments in a game in their minds so that when that moment happens they react to it with the subconscious knowledge in their brain. I think his experiences from all different levels and in different positions make that complete package with the physical abilities that he has. Why does he score so many tries? We talk about how a game model can create moments for certain players. But once that moment is created the margins can be so small. If you’re one step closer or one step later in catching the ball the moment closes. That’s what I mean about the sixth sense: a lot of guys will get in close after the game model has created the moments but not quite finish like Mapimpi does.

Mzwandile Stick: Springbok assistant coach (off-the-ball and aerial game)

Makazole’s probably one of the fittest rugby in South Africa, which helps him with his massive work rate on the field. He’s one of the busiest players I’ve ever seen and I’ve never seen someone with an engine like that. When you look at the role he plays, chasing the kicks and getting up for aerial battles – the guy is always up there. When you want him to finish he’s always got something in reserve and is one of the best finishers. If you look at the way we play, especially with our wings, it’s difficult there because they have to do a lot of chasing of the high ball and defensively they have to come from the wider channels to make tackles in the middle of the field and go back to cover the outside spaces again. So there’s a lot that they do and you won’t find anyone better than Makazole at it. A possible explanation of his fitness is if you look at where he comes from and the nature of the players you find there. Those guys walk for 10km, if not more, going to school and back so they’re always in good shape. His ability under the high ball was a question mark when we called him up for the first time. But I understand the background from which he came. In the rural areas you’re never taught how to catch a high ball, and if you kick the ball your coach will probably take you off the field. So it wasn’t that he couldn’t catch the high ball, it was just that he was never exposed to doing it. That was a discussion before he joined us but I promised Rassie Erasmus that I’d help him with it, and because he’s such a good listener and student of the game he hasn’t looked back.

Jacques Nienaber: Springbok coach (defence)

I think where we were lucky with our defence was there was parity for all the wings. A guy who had 30 Tests under his belt didn’t have an edge over a guy with one Test because it was a completely new system and something that hadn’t been coached at any franchise in South Africa. The message to the guys was: this is completely new, you won’t feel comfortable in it and you have to handle the discomfort and failure that comes with it – but only through failure will you get better at it. That was important for Mapimpi because the biggest thing with him is his ability to learn and adapt. I don’t know how well he did at school but from a rugby perspective he’s a clever guy who will listen, take it all in and is a practical learner. The tough thing about coaching sometimes is you get a player who’s unbelievably good but struggles to get out of his comfort zone. One of Mapimpi’s biggest assets is being out of his comfort zone. But his biggest asset is how unbelievably fast he is, I don’t think even he knows how quick he is. Because of that, he can make the wrong read defensively, turn around and still catch the guy, something not a lot of wings can do. It also helps that he’s not afraid. If you take speed and a guy not being afraid you’ve got a fairly lethal weapon on the wing in terms of our defence. In our system a guy comes off the line at about six or seven metres per second so he can’t be afraid of that collision. If you make a read at those speeds you might make that tackle at seven to eight metres a second, which makes it a car crash collision and no longer a tackle. So you can’t be afraid.

Lukhanyo Am: Springbok centre, Sharks captain and housemate (mentality)

There are a lot of factors which make Pimps a great player, but if I had to point to one it would have to be his preparation. In the buildup to a game his preparation is spot-on. He works really hard at his it and he also works hard on the recovery side to be in the best condition he can be on Saturday. He’s self-motivated, analyses his games and pushes himself to be consistent all the time. Obviously his life experiences and his upbringing are factors in his motivation. He’s learned from his previous experiences. He knows where he comes from and I think that’s one of the things that motivates him. From a mental toughness perspective I’ve never seen anything wipe him out. He always sees the positive side in situations and things. Being a hard worker, he takes the best out of things and works his way back. As rugby players we play through the pain barrier, but some players pull out when something’s not right and others push through the pain and still perform consistently. Makazole is one of those guys and that proves how mentally strong he is.