Sikhumbuzo Notshe is the first Springbok to hail from Nyanga in Cape Town. This is his story, in his own words.
Growing up in Nyanga was tough. I lived in a small shack with my mom and dad, my brothers, my aunt and cousins. But we got a lot of unconditional love and that’s what I remember the most about that time.
Rugby runs in the family. My dad, Mandla, played prop for Lagunya Rugby Club and the Western Province Disa team. My uncles, one of my brothers and cousins also played the game.
When I was a kid, I used to hang out at the club and spent most of my weekends there. Weekends were all about rugby, and we used to travel to places like Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek for away matches. I owe a lot to Norman Mbiko, the former Leopards (South African African Rugby Union) scrumhalf who coached at the club and mentored me.
I would play rugby for Nomlinganiselo Primary School on a Wednesday and then represent the club on a Saturday. One of my teachers, former referee Louis Mzomba, saw I was talented and sent me to Western Province U12 trials in 2005. The following year, I played for WP at the U13 Craven Week, as a utility back (I could play centre, wing and fullback). I also did athletics in primary school, taking part in the 100m and 200m sprints, so I had some speed.
I was part of the Vusa Rugby Academy for just over a year. Kids from Nomlinganiselo, John Pama and Linge primary schools were bused through to Bishops, where we were coached by Basil Bey and Brendan Fogarty. I went there with a bunch of mates and it was a jol. More than anything else, it was a fun thing for me to do.
My life changed when Wynberg Boys’ High offered me a full bursary. It was difficult for me at first, having grown up in a township and never spoken English, but the headmaster, Keith Richardson, and some of the teachers helped me overcome that language barrier and settle in at the school. Those teachers played a father- or mother-figure role to me, as I didn’t have my parents around. That’s not to take anything away from my parents, who taught me things like discipline, treating people with respect and staying humble.
I moved from the backline to the forwards at U14 level. My dad told me I was becoming bigger and taller, and suggested I try No 8. My teacher was happy to play me there and said I could always return to the backline if it didn’t work out.
I represented Western Province at the U16 Grant Khomo Week in 2009 and U18 Craven Week in 2010 and 2011. As a kid growing up in Cape Town, it had always been a dream of mine to wear the blue and white hoops. I always supported WP and the Stormers.
I remember the coach of the WP U13 side telling us this team would never be together again and that some of us would never wear the jersey again. When I wore it, I wanted the feeling to never end and while there was pressure on us to perform, I loved every moment.
Playing for SA Schools, in 2010 and 2011, was also special. I was only the second Wynberg boy to be selected for SA Schools and the first since 1974. I was initially quite chilled about it – I played blindside flank and had fun – and what I had achieved only sunk in when I returned to school. I was given a special blazer with stripes, so I stood out, and other kids starting looking up to me, so I became more of a leader. I was a naughty bugger at school and had to start behaving better! That’s when I learned that if you achieve something special, it comes with a level of responsibility.
In 2013, I got a call from John Dobson, who was Western Province’s Vodacom Cup and U21 coach at the time. Dawie Snyman Jnr, my Craven Week coach, had recommended me to Dobbo and he wanted to meet with me at a pub across from Newlands. He was a bit surprised when I declined a beer – I don’t drink – but the meeting went well and I made my WP debut soon after in a Vodacom Cup match against Boland in Paarl.
I got bullied by the Boland forwards that day. I had been a big deal at school, so that experience humbled me and I learned a big lesson. Dobbo and Dawie managed me well during the rest of the campaign and kept believing in me.
I made a smooth transition from Vodacom Cup to U21 rugby that year, because we had the same management team. I flourished at U21 level and was named Man of the Match – playing at No 7 – after our win in the final against the Blue Bulls at Newlands.
I played Vodacom Cup rugby again the following year. One morning after a game, I was woken up by a call from WP Rugby’s Ria Malan, who told me to get up, shower and come fetch my Stormers kit, because I was flying to Brisbane to join the squad. I had never been overseas before, so at Sydney Airport I had to ask someone to help me find the correct terminal for my connecting flight. When I arrived in Brisbane, the guys joked that they had expected me to land up in Iraq! I came off the bench against the Reds and scored a try, which was awesome, and was used as a sub in the next two tour games. That gave me a good taste of Super Rugby.
I played for WP U21 again that year, until an injury to Rynhardt Elstadt saw me named on WP’s bench for a Currie Cup match against the Golden Lions at Ellis Park. I was only expecting a five-minute run at the end of the game, but Siya Kolisi got injured late in the first half and the manager told me I was going on. I thought I produced a solid performance. I started the next four games, at No 6, and then came off the bench in the semi-final and final. It was amazing to win the Currie Cup at the age of 21 in my first season at that level.
Over the next four seasons with Western Province and the Stormers I played openside flank, blindside flank and No 8 and was used as a starter and a substitute. It was only in Super Rugby last year, when I started seven of the Stormers’ last eight matches at No 8, that I got a good run in one position and was able to build some momentum. In last year’s Currie Cup, I started three games at openside flank and then two at No 8, including the final. I obviously want to start every match at No 8, which is my favourite position, but all you can do is keep working hard and the opportunities will come.
After the 2017 Currie Cup, I had a short stint in sevens. I wanted to improve my skill set and improve as a rugby player. Guys like Kwagga Smith, Ardie Savea and Sean McMahon, who have been successful in sevens and fifteens, have excellent skill sets. I was also keen to be part of a successful Blitzboks set-up and learn from their team culture and work ethic.
I played for the SA Sevens Academy at a tournament in Dubai at the end of 2017 and then for the Blitzboks at the Sydney and Hamilton tournaments in early-2018.
Playing sevens helped me improve my work rate, breakdown skills and tackling, because there is nowhere to hide. When I returned to the Stormers set-up before Super Rugby I was in the best shape of my life and in a great space mentally. I had been at the Stormers for five years and needed to experience something new. I came back feeling rejuvenated.
I’m grateful Stormers coach Robbie Fleck gave me his blessing to join the sevens set-up during the off-season, and for the opportunity provided by Blitzboks coach Neil Powell and Marius Schoeman, who was the academy team coach at the time.
I don’t think I will ever go back to sevens – I’m focused on fifteens now – but am glad I got to experience it.
I was called up to the Springbok squad for the first time before the Test series against Ireland in June 2016. I was having my best season of Super Rugby, so I was excited about the opportunity I’d been given by Bok coach Allister Coetzee.
I don’t think he had a plan for me, though. After training on the Monday and Tuesday, I was told I wasn’t going to be part of the match 23 for the first Test at Newlands and would join the South Africa A squad in Bloemfontein, along with Scarra Ntubeni, Nick Groom and Garth April.
When I arrived in Bloemfontein, SA A coach Johan Ackermann said he had been told to play me at No 6 against the England Saxons, but didn’t believe I was an openside, so he just wanted me to go out there at No 6 and play my own game and express myself. I did and played the best game of my life.
I won’t lie; it was tough not to play for the Springboks that year, having been called up to the squad, and in 2017. But I kept working hard and in May last year I received a call from Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who said, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to Washington.’ Jeez, it was awesome. He told me I would be on the bench for the match against Wales and to just go out there and enjoy myself.
Before the game Rassie told the team he didn’t mind players making mistakes, but the effort and eagerness must be there. I took note of that and told myself, ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop working.’ And that’s what I did when I came on after 54 minutes to make my Test debut. It obviously wasn’t great to lose the match, but the positive feedback I got afterwards lifted me.
I also came off the bench in the three home Tests against England in June and then made my first start in the Rugby Championship match against the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth. I was substituted after 45 minutes but didn’t mind because I had emptied the tank and was pleased with my performance.
It was tough mentally not to get any game time on the Boks’ end-of-year tour. You have to decide: either you’re going to be selfish and think about yourself or you’re going to be selfless and put the team first and support the guys who are playing. I think I did the latter well. Not once did I sulk. In a way, not playing can make you a better player, because you have to be ready if there’s an injury. There’s no time to feel sorry for yourself and who wouldn’t want to spend five weeks in Europe?
It was great to finish off the year with the Barbarians. It’s on every professional rugby player’s bucket list and now I know why! There’s not much training – the players are encouraged to socialise! – but I felt we still got the work done and did well to beat Argentina at Twickenham. I came on during the first half as a blood replacement and got a good run in the second.
It’s a World Cup year and I want to go to Japan with the Springboks. That’s my main goal, of course. But first there’s a Super Rugby tournament I need to play well in and a Stormers team I need to play well for.
I just want to control the controllables this season and go out there and enjoy myself.
If I do that, I will give myself a good chance of going to the World Cup, where I would not only be representing my country, but my local community too. Now that would be special.
As told to Simon Borchardt
– This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.