Lwazi Mvovo has added new dimensions to his game, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It didn’t take long in the new year for Lwazi Mvovo to send out another reminder of the clinical finishing ability that has always been a hallmark of his game. Just over an hour into the Sharks’ first pre-season game against Toulon in early February, he received the ball in his familiar position on the left wing, stepped swiftly inside, bumped off a would-be tackler and casually coasted over for a try.
That instinctive eye for the tryline was also aptly illustrated in just his second Test for the Springboks when he ghosted past a trio of English players to score a match-winning try at Twickenham in 2010. And just last August, he was memorably at it again as he displayed superb vision to cut infield and impressively beat three defenders on the way to scoring another eye-catching try against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Recollections of Mvovo’s try-scoring exploits could go on and on – after all, he has tallied up 24 Super Rugby tries since his debut in 2010, while he’s dotted down five times in 15 Tests.
‘He really is an exceptional finisher,’ Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Just look how he performed against Toulon and the way he finished off his try. It is a unique skill that is a differentiating factor between a good wing and a world-class wing, which is what Lwazi is.’
Yet Gold also regards Mvovo as one of South Africa’s most underrated players, with the flyer from Mthatha having started just 11 Tests for the Boks despite being one of the Sharks’ most reliable performers for several seasons.
‘Lwazi is one of those players who has perhaps flown relatively under the radar since his debut for the Springboks in 2010, but he’s been such a consistent performer for the Sharks for a number of years,’ Gold reiterates. ‘Now he’s got to the stage where he’s matured and grown as a player. Like with all really good players, the more they play, the more they find themselves in the same situations and begin to read the game better and better.
‘That’s what’s happened with Lwazi. He’s such an intelligent player – you just have to look where he pops up. So often he provides an inside option off the first receiver, while his work rate is really good.’
At 29, Mvovo has still managed to retain his blistering pace, while adding other dimensions to his game that have made him a far more well-rounded player. In 2014, his evolution took an interesting turn when he was deployed at fullback, a move that required him to work even harder on aspects of his game such as kicking and high-ball catching.
‘I think the fact he’s played some rugby at fullback has added an extra dimension to his game, and it’s given him a different perspective in terms of identifying space, while his counter-attacking ability has improved because of it,’ Gold says. ‘He’s also had to work on his kicking game and his decision-making.’
When former Sharks director of rugby Jake White first opted to move Mvovo to fullback during the 2014 season, it caught many rugby followers by surprise. However, he quickly silenced the doubters as he made a seamless transition from wing, going on to start six successive mid-season games in the No 15 jersey. It was an experience he says he thoroughly enjoyed.
‘The time I spent at fullback helped in terms of seeing space and picking up on gaps in the defence. You’re obviously a bit more involved in the game, and spending time at fullback helped me to grow as a player. I feel my attacking skills and defence improved, and now when I play on the wing it’s easier for me to read what the fullback is doing and what he needs from me because I’ve played there.'
With the arrival of Willie le Roux and Joe Pietersen (both from the Cheetahs) at the Sharks, Mvovo looks likely to predominantly feature on the wing during this Super Rugby campaign, but Gold insists they could reprise his role at fullback at some point.
‘I think, for us at the moment, Lwazi’s first-choice position is on the wing and we will keep him there, but there’s no question he remains an option at fullback,’ he says. ‘Depending on our needs during the season we’d definitely still consider him at 15; he provides important cover in that position.’
And now, as one of the senior stalwarts in a Sharks squad that has had to bid farewell to a number of Springbok stars since last year, there is a real sense that the 2016 season could be a watershed one for Mvovo.
‘There are a lot of youngsters in our squad, and it’s important for senior players such as myself to fulfil a mentorship role,’ he says. ‘I remember when I joined the Sharks’ set-up how senior players helped me along the way, and without that I would not be where I am today. It is important for us to show the way for the youngsters, and to lead by example.’
Gold says it’s a leadership role he’s keen for Mvovo to embrace this season.
‘Along with guys like Odwa [Ndungane], Pat [Lambie], Marcell [Coetzee] and Beast [Mtawarira], Lwazi is one of those players who has been at the Sharks for a while and who forms part of our leadership group. There’s no doubt he’s hugely respected by the group just by the way he plays and conducts himself. He’s the ultimate professional.’
By all accounts, it seems Mvovo should no longer be regarded as just a try-scoring finisher. His game and role in the Sharks’ team has evolved, and his best may very well still be to come.
– This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine