Penxe: From darkness into the light

Former Kings wing Yaw Penxe is a player of national interest who is aiming to lift his game at the Sharks, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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In the wake of the Springbok Showdown trials match in early October, coach Mzwandile Stick made an emphatic – and ultimately prophetic appraisal of the performance from young wing Yaw Penxe.

‘With the way he played … if I were a coach somewhere, I would take the opportunity to bring him in. I have worked with Yaw since he was 19 at the Kings. I also coached him at the Baby Boks in 2017. I know he is a player with great potential, and you could see under the high ball, he was very aggressive.’

At the time, Penxe was one of the players looking for new opportunities after the Kings had fallen into liquidation, leaving him and his teammates jobless overnight.

‘I would be surprised if Yaw will still be in PE in two weeks’ time,’ Stick continued. ‘There will be a lot of teams after him. What is happening in PE is not nice to see and I really have a soft spot for Eastern Province rugby. I am who I am today because they gave me an opportunity, so I would be really happy to see Yaw get a deal with one of the top teams in South Africa.’

Less than 48 hours later, the Sharks effectively answered Stick’s call, snapping up Penxe on a short-term deal.

‘It’s been absolutely crazy,’ the 23-year-old tells SA Rugby magazine after settling into an apartment in Durban North. ‘First we were told we weren’t going to play in the Currie Cup and then a few weeks later we were called into a meeting on a Saturday afternoon, where they dropped the news that we were going into liquidation.

‘Then in the midst of that I got chosen to play in the Springbok Showdown. So much has happened in a short space of time and now I’m here at the Sharks. I’m feeling so fortunate to have an opportunity after things fell apart at the Kings.’

Penxe is another name to add to the long list of classy wings to come off the conveyor belt in South African rugby. Yet, it also brings the rugby tragedy of the Kings’ demise into context when one considers Penxe is a true product from the Eastern Cape hotbed of talent.

Born in Queenstown, he represented Border twice at the U18 Craven Week and came through the junior ranks after being drafted into the EP Kings academy.

Yet, as the Queen’s College alumnus explains, the Kings disintegration has had a far-reaching effect.

‘It was really an emotional time. We went through lockdown without being able to train or play, and took pay cuts. Once we were able to get out there again, we started to put in the hard yards in the hope there’d be some competition before the end of the year.

‘Then suddenly we were told we’re not going to play in any competition, but they first suggested this was to look after the players and so they could remain in a position to continue paying our salaries. Not even two weeks later we had that meeting where they gave us the news about liquidation, six days before pay day. It left everyone, and guys with families asking “How are we going to survive without a salary?”

‘Obviously we stopped training immediately and a lot of guys went though a dip, not just financially but emotionally too. To be honest, I think a lot of the guys are still going through a rough patch.’

Yet Penxe has had no option but to roll with the punches.

And when looking on the brighter side, he reflects on his debut Super Rugby season in 2017 as the highlight of his time at the Kings – a team that will always be close to his heart.

‘We know how much talent the province has and how many top players have come out of the Eastern Cape. I went through the ranks and I’m really grateful for the opportunity they provided me. But it is very sad now that the kids at school or varsity in and around the Eastern Cape most likely won’t have a professional team they can work towards playing for.’

Former Kings coach Robbie Kempson, who was one of those who spotted the talents of Penxe at Queen’s College, tells SA Rugby magazine he is a player blessed with raw potential.

‘Yaw really developed as a player and person at our academy. It’s great to see he has an opportunity at the Sharks now, particularly as he was just starting to show what he was worth at the Kings before everyone was hung out to dry.

‘He has blitz pace, and a good skill set. He also reads the game very well, and is pretty handy at fullback, as much as he is at wing. He can kick well out of hand, so he’s a well-rounded player.

‘When we selected our academy players, we did it on talent but also looked at the character of the person, and he’s someone who is professional and puts the effort in. Talent is one thing, but his professionalism also stands out.

‘Whatever environment he’s in, he’s going to shine. He’s the type of guy who is determined to keep improving and evolving his skill set, so when he gets an opportunity at the Sharks I’m sure he’ll prove himself.’

Penxe counts himself among the Kings’ lucky ones and will be hoping his ‘lifeline’ in Durban leads to a permanent stay.

As a schoolboy who excelled at athletics and grew up idolising Springbok legend Bryan Habana, Penxe knows he will be faced with stern competition for a starting position in a Sharks squad that boast experienced wings such as S’bu Nkosi, Madosh Tambwe, Werner Kok, JP Pietersen and Makazole Mapimpi, who will be returning from a Japan sabbatical next year.

There’s a lot to learn from guys like that,’ says Penxe. ‘Rather than just watching from afar, I’m actually training with guys who’ve won a World Cup, and to be able to sit down and chat to them can only help me become a better player.’

For the Sharks, there’s no doubt the timely recruitment of Penxe is a smart bit of business, and coach Sean Everitt highlights how the speedster caught their eye in the Springbok Showdown.

‘We feel Yaw is a player who has shone in the Pro14 and he did a damn good job in the Bok green team. A young guy like him can add huge value to the Sharks.’

Former Kings mentor Deon Davids, who brought Penxe into the team’s senior set-up during his time as head coach at the Eastern Cape franchise, is well placed to back Everitt’s sentiments.

‘Yaw is a special talent. We know his strengths as an outstanding attacker and someone who can finish an opportunity when it comes. I am really pleased he grabbed this opportunity and he really did well. Yaw was out for so long with an injury but fought his way back. He is confirmation that if a player works hard enough and grabs his chance, anything is possible. We know there is plenty of talent and probably more of these players, but it is just a question of getting an opportunity.’

That ‘opportunity’ is particularly prized for Penxe. He’s had to pack his bags to find a new home in Durban, while the brief taste of national involvement has left the former Junior Springbok hungry for higher honours.

‘That week of the Springbok Showdown was just amazing,’ he says. ‘I was going through a bit of a dark period in my life but then here comes this opportunity to learn, to train with the world champions, to play with the world champions alongside me, to work with the best coaches in the world. For me, it was about learning and it was mind-blowing to see the work that goes in behind the scenes. It makes sense that they produce the results that they do.

‘Then I got the call and came up to join the Sharks. And again, I’m just looking to learn as much as I can from the coaching staff and the players, to settle in and grab this chance. I’m one of the few guys from the Kings squad who is playing somewhere and I want to show my appreciation by performing for them.’

Yaw Penxe on …

The Pro14

‘It’s a tough competition. Firstly, the weather up north is not what you are used to at home. You get a lot of wet, heavy pitches, it’s rainy and windy most of the time and it’s cold. And the teams play rugby differently; it’s more a tactical game, a more set-piece type of rugby. But it was great playing in the Pro14 season and I think South African teams can definitely do well in that competition.’

His love for athletics during his school days

‘In Grade 11 I had to make the decision to choose between rugby and athletics. I loved athletics, 400m, triple jump, long jump, high jump, and I also did it from a young age and even went to the SA Junior Championships. But it wasn’t that difficult a decision to make. Rugby was huge at Queen’s College and soon after I made that decision, I got the academy contract and that pushed me even more to focus all my energy towards it.’

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Craig Lewis