Mapimpi, regarded by many as South Africa’s best finisher, has improved other aspects of his game to become a more complete player, writes JON CARDINELLI.
There was a time when Mapimpi refused to dream. It wasn’t too long ago when he felt that professional rugby was the preserve of the privileged and the fortunate.
Mapimpi didn’t attend a major rugby school. He didn’t play for a Craven Week side or catch the eye of an academy scout. His 21st birthday came and went, then his 22nd and his 23rd. At the ripe old rugby age of 25, Mapimpi had started to believe that a stint with Border in the Currie Cup First Division was the Holy Grail for a kid from the rural Eastern Cape.
‘How wrong I was,’ Mapimpi says. Indeed, the wing has come a long way over the ensuing years, representing the Kings, Cheetahs, Sharks and ultimately the Springboks. Last year, coach Rassie Erasmus described Mapimpi as the Boks’ most improved player, referring to his progress on defence and under the high ball.
Professional rugby has changed Mapimpi’s life as well as his dreams. It was as recently as 2017, in his breakout year for the Kings, when SA Rugby magazine interviewed the rough diamond from Border. Back then, Mapimpi battled to express himself in English. When I catch up with player ahead of the Sharks’ tour to Australasia, it’s evident that Mapimpi has developed his language skills to the point where he can direct the conversation.
The wing is also keen to express why he plays the game. It’s not for tries, victories or trophies. It’s for the sake of the next generation of potential superstars in his home province.
‘Is it my dream to go the World Cup this year? It’s an interesting question,’ Mapimpi begins. ‘When I look back at the past few years, and how I have played at Super Rugby and Test levels, then I would say yes, absolutely. It’s a dream for me to go to Japan and represent my country.
‘Having said that, I remember where I was a few years ago. At that stage, I wasn’t even thinking about playing Super Rugby. My friends and coaches told me I had something special, but I didn’t take them seriously because I didn’t see how it was possible to take the next step.
‘I played club rugby and then age-group rugby for Border believing that that was as good as it got for me. Now that I’ve gone on to play Super Rugby and to play for the Boks … it’s a big thing for a boy from the rural Eastern Cape. Hopefully it will show others who are growing up in similar circumstances that they can succeed. It will give them hope of going as far as I have. My message to them is to never give up on your dream.’
Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick – who worked with Mapimpi when both were at the Kings and was responsible for upskilling the wing when he joined the Boks last year – agrees that Mapimpi’s story is an important one. At the same time, Stick reveals how hard Mapimpi has had to work to make that transition, even though he is a player with many natural gifts.
Stick recognised Mapimpi’s talent when the player was starting regularly at outside centre for Border. At that stage, Mapimpi was heavier and expected to take more contact in midfield. Over the years, Mapimpi’s coaches have attempted to refine the player’s attacking skills while also developing the aspects – defence, kicking and aerial ability – needed to succeed at the highest level.
‘He was a real rough diamond when he was at Border,’ remembers Stick. ‘We saw him tearing defences to shreds for the Kings, and later for the Cheetahs, but he hadn’t really had the opportunity to polish those other skills. Players who hail from the rural areas are discouraged from kicking the ball. He put in a lot of work and we saw an improvement. That’s what we mean when we say he was the most improved player – and here we are talking across the board – in the past year or so.
‘There were a lot of questions about his defence and aerial skills when we first included him in the Bok squad last year,’ Stick admits. ‘To be honest, we were a bit concerned about how he would go when he actually got a chance to play.’
Stick confirms that Mapimpi was under a lot of pressure to adapt in relatively short space of time. The player remembers the challenge of stepping up from First Division rugby to Super Rugby, and later to the Pro14 and Test levels.
‘There is a massive gap between First Division and Vodacom Super Rugby,’ says Mapimpi. ‘The game plan of a Super Rugby team is very different. As I found out in later years, the game plan of the Kings – which was built on our running strengths – was very different to that of the Sharks and Boks.
‘I felt like I struggled in my first year with the Sharks,’ he reveals. ‘I went straight from playing a full Super Rugby season for the Kings in 2017 to playing a full Pro14 season for the Cheetahs. When I got to the Sharks, I had to work hard to improve my aerial game and defence. I was fatigued, though. I didn’t feel like I was playing my best rugby and was a bit surprised when I got a call up to play for the Boks.’
Mapimpi certainly made a lasting impression, though. The wing scored four tries in four Tests before breaking down with a season-ending knee injury. This year, he’s been in red-hot attacking form for the Sharks. Many of those in the know believe that Mapimpi is the best finisher in the country.
‘He’s a natural-born predator,’ says former Bok winger Breyton Paulse, who scored 26 tries in 64 Tests. ‘The manner in which he sniff out a gap or pops up on the ball-carrier’s shoulder to accept the final pass… it’s a combination of instinct and hard work. He’s starting to understand what’s required of him and how he can best use his talent to serve the team.
‘[Former Bok wing] Pieter Rossouw also had that natural feel for the game,’ Paulse explains after being asked to elaborate on what sets Mapimpi apart from most in this country. ‘“Slaptjips” saw the opportunity a few seconds before it presented itself. Makazole in the same class. It’s a rare gift, something only a few players are born with.
‘We’ve seen it already this season: Makazole flying onto a pass at exactly the right moment. You don’t see everything on TV, though. When I’ve watched him live, I’ve followed his movements in back play. I’ve noticed how he sums up the situation, and occasionally how he bides his time and waits for a another ruck or phase to make his move. So when the moment to strike arrives, he usually makes the most of it.’
Mapimpi makes it clear that he is on his own journey to become a more complete player. While his improvement on defence and under the high ball is well documented, the wing continues to look for ways to sharpen his attacking game.
‘I’ve never been the type of guy to watch a big Test and say “I want to be like that player”, he says. ‘I watch a lot of rugby games across a lot of different competitions. I look for the small things that players do that mark them as different and successful. I then try to bring that through to my own game. For example, I saw something that I liked in a Varsity Cup game earlier this year. That’s how I think about making myself a stronger and more complete attacking player.
‘Watching your teammates is also a good way to learn and reach that next level,’ he adds. ‘I watch S’bu Nkosi taking those high balls in big matches. I note how he moves and what he does when he is in the air.’
Mapimpi’s attitude as well as his finishing prowess may well earn him a place in Erasmus’s World Cup squad. If he is picked, Mapimpi will have the opportunity to realise his dream of inspiring the next generation.
‘It’s important to give people hope,’ says Stick, who grew up in a Port Elizabeth township before going onto captain the Blitzboks to the World Rugby Sevens Series title in 2008-09.
‘Anyone who hails from the townships and rural areas will understand Makazole’s mission. Those areas want for good facilities and maybe people don’t believe there is a chance to realise a dream of playing for the Boks. What guys like Makazole have shown, however, is that you can make it if you work hard and take your opportunities. We’ve seen a few other examples. Aphiwe Dyantyi is another player who wasn’t even involved in Super Rugby until last year. He wasn’t on the radar as a youngster, but he’s gone on to star for the Boks and win the 2018 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award.’
Mapimpi comes back to the question about dreams and personal goals.
‘I can’t really answer that in a personal sense,’ he says. ‘I’m not playing for myself. I’m playing for everyone from the Eastern Cape. I still get messages from people from my past, people who backed me when I was a youngster playing age-group rugby for Border. I have a lot of people from the rural areas sending me messages on Facebook saying that they’re praying for me and wishing me well.
‘Others like Lukhanyo Am, who also grew up in the Eastern Cape, will know what I’m talking about. There was a time when we thought this professional rugby thing was a step too far for us. Now that we’ve made it, we have a responsibility to repay the people who supported us, and to show others what can be achieved if you never give up.’
Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images