More than a milestone

The Ndungane twins are the only black Africans to have played 100 Super Rugby matches. The significance of that feat is greater than it appears on the surface, writes RYAN VREDE.

When Bulls and Sharks wings Akona and Odwa Ndungane earned their 100th Super Rugby caps, it was a personal triumph as much as it was a triumph for transformation and the Eastern Cape region. The magnitude of their feats should never be discounted.

Akona became the ninth Bulls player after Bakkies Botha (100), Pierre Spies (103), Wynand Olivier (108), Fourie du Preez (112), Pedrie Wannenburg (113), Danie Rossouw (116), Morné Steyn (123) and Victor Matfield (129 at the time of writing) to reach the century mark. Most notably, he became the Bulls’ first player of colour to reach the milestone, a significant feat when you consider the region was once the heartland of the apartheid regime. In the early days of professionalism the union was the poster child for racial tokenism, where many a black player’s career died.

His is an astonishing rise. Furthermore, in returning from two serious leg fractures, Akona proved that while his bones were destructible, his spirit was not.

The brothers have pressed on in the face of strong competition for their places and even stronger criticism of their value from sections of the media and public – often their own teams’ supporters. There have been opportunities to escape it all by signing contracts with foreign clubs. Instead, they chose the narrow road. Their decisions were rewarded.

That in itself is reason to heap liberal praise on them. There are bigger, faster and more ‘sexy’ wings in South Africa, but few who can match the twins for determination, resolve, work ethic, loyalty, intellect and temperament under pressure.

Most importantly, they are the only black African players to accumulate 100 Super Rugby caps. It would be easy to lament this fact in view of the tournament’s 18-year history. Certainly, it speaks to the painfully slow rate of transformation in the game in South Africa. But this is a piece celebrating their careers, one that chooses to extol everything that is good about their feats.  

There are bigger, faster and more ‘sexy’ wings in South Africa, but few who can match the twins for determination, resolve, work ethic, loyalty, intellect and temperament under pressure

They’ve elicited enough belief from their coaches to become mainstays with their teams for the better part of a decade, while their careers have been largely successful in terms of the acquisition of silverware. Akona, remember, is a World Cup winner and has won two Super Rugby titles (2007 and 2009), while Odwa started in the Sharks’ Currie Cup final wins of 2008, 2010 and 2013.

However, to measure the twins’ impact on the game by examining their accolades alone would be to undermine their significant contribution to the South African game’s past, present and future. They are infinitely more than the sum of their technical, physical and mental parts. Becoming the first black African players to reach the 100-cap mark, they represent hope of a professional career with longevity for young black players rising through the ranks, and beyond that to the kids in the country’s various townships for whom their story resonates with most strongly.

That story began in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape and has played out in Pretoria and Durban. The region they came from continues to churn out gifted young black players with mechanical regularity. Some, like Siya Kolisi, have the potential to surpass the twins’ Super Rugby caps haul. Indeed, such is Kolisi’s prowess that it isn’t hard to see him becoming the first black African player to play 100 Tests for the Springboks. The Ndunganes’ contribution to what Kolisi or black players of his calibre can achieve should always be at the forefront of our minds.

For a while it appeared that Solly Tyibilika would be the player who would lead a wave of black talent from the Eastern Cape. Sadly, his life was taken prematurely, but by that time his career had stalled and his life outside the game had descended into chaos.

The twins picked up the mantle and are Eastern Cape rugby’s most notable black African success story – the first chapter in a book that should be of substantial size a decade from now. How desperately the region needed these heroes to stand up as examples of what is possible with very little investment from the game’s governing body, and to paint a picture of how much more value the region could offer the South African game if that investment was purposeful, strategic, determined, sustainable and ongoing.

– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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