When Wandisile Simelane is enjoying his rugby, it is written all over his face. It shows in his broad smile, his bulging eyes as he spots gaps in the opposition defence, the way he sticks his tongue out as leaps over the tryline, writes DYLAN JACK.
A difficult start to 2020 made that sight a bit of a rarity. After a successful 2019 Currie Cup, where he started every game for the Lions on the way to the final, Simelane found himself left out of the opening two matches of the 2020 Super Rugby season.
The paper talk at the time was that the 22-year-old had not applied himself as far as his fitness was concerned.
After fighting his way back into contention and earning his first start of the year during the Lions’ tour of Australia, Simelane’s season took a double-blow as he picked up a minor knee ligament injury before Super Rugby was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic and South Africa went into a hard lockdown.
‘The lockdown was very difficult,’ Simelane tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Mentally, it was quite tough. But it also gave me some time to recover properly from my knee injury and to work on things I wouldn’t necessarily work on.’
Even then, Simelane’s early season troubles filtered into his lockdown as there was much speculation over his future at Ellis Park, with reports linking him to the Sharks and Western Province.
This was ended when the Lions matched a bid by Western Province to keep the former Jeppe High School pupil in Johannesburg until 2022.
‘I wouldn’t say it helped me settle, it made me want to get back on to the field and play again,’ Simelane says. ‘As soon as I signed, I was excited to get back out there and play again and give it my all. It made me more hungry to go back and play. The longer the lockdown kept on getting extended, the more I got frustrated.’
To Simelane’s credit, he used his time in lockdown effectively, getting his fitness up while also working on his ball skills.
‘I did look at my kicking in the wider channels and things that aren’t really focused on when we are in season, like my catch and pass accuracy. Obviously, I did much more running than I usually do in a regular season. I worked on a lot of passing, which I don’t reckon I work on enough in-season because you need to focus more on the key plays and structures. It was a weird time, but I think I used it wisely.’
Simelane’s hard work clearly paid off as he returned to his best form in Super Rugby Unlocked.
In his first start of the campaign, against Griquas, Simelane not only scored a fantastic try when he got the ball on the wing, chipped ahead and outsprinted the cover defence, but also made four try assists, becoming just the second South African to achieve the feat after SP Marais in 2017.
He was at it again in the following weekend’s derby against the Bulls, scoring an outrageous counter-attacking try, when he brushed off the tackle attempts of four Bulls defenders to find himself with nothing but the tryline ahead of him.
Despite making just two starts in Super Rugby Unlocked, Simelane made a massive 158m, beat 10 defenders and made seven linebreaks.
Jeppe High’s director of sport, Brendan Gittins, who knows Simelane well from his schoolboy days, says it is clear the Lions player has rediscovered his confidence.
‘He is definitely playing with a knowledge that the guys there believe in him and are with him for the long haul,’ Gittins told SA Rugby magazine. ‘Wandisile has a looseness and freedom with the way he is playing. You can see that in the tries he is scoring.
‘I think what’s probably most impressive is the way he is putting people into space. There were some question marks in the past over whether he was a selfish player, but I think he has proved that he might be one of the best two-on-one players in South Africa right now. His try assists speak volumes about the mental space that he is in. He is a team man, playing with confidence and he is putting people into space.
‘One must watch his body language,’ Gittins says. ‘Watch what happens when other people score. He is often the first guy there, congratulating them. He is happy for people, happy for the Lions. So everything about his behaviour and body language is all about the team.’
As a further mental boost, Simelane got his first taste of a senior international environment when he was called up to the Green squad for the Springbok Showdown in Cape Town in the first week of October.
‘It was unreal,’ he says. ‘We had an awesome week. I learned a lot. We had proper senior guys, like Frans Steyn, Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Elton Jantjies. So we had a lot of senior Springboks who helped us throughout the whole week.
‘You got a real taste of what it takes to be a Springbok and how to prepare for a game for a national team. We used Argentina as a mock team we were playing against and we had to analyse them, which was really interesting. We also won that Saturday, which made it extra special for us.’
Gittins says the call-up was a sign Simelane was in the national plans and that in itself would come as a massive boost to his confidence.
‘He believes he should be there, because that is the type of player he is,’ Gittins says. ‘The lockdown would have been awful for everyone, but for him in particular. There were clearly issues. Going through that situation and then coming out of lockdown, to have his name included in that set-up would have done him the world of good.
‘Even though Rassie Erasmus isn’t the Springbok coach any more I know he is a fan of Simelane. Rassie and Jacques Nienaber have sent him a strong message, saying he is in their thoughts. He’s got that recognition from the top saying, we see you, we know there have been issues, but we are watching you.’
Despite going through a tough year in his fledgling professional career, Simelane admits it has given him immense personal growth.
‘I think I have grown as a player and human being. Working on myself, having individual time to work on my rugby skills … as weird as the lockdown was, I feel it was very beneficial for me. I had so much time to work on things and to do what I needed to do to better myself. Surprisingly, the lockdown did help, even though I started getting frustrated towards the end.’
For now, Simelane is turning his attention towards helping the Lions claim the Currie Cup after a disrupted Unlocked campaign saw two of their fixtures called off due to Covid-19 protocols.
‘As a group, we are looking forward to the Currie Cup. There are one or two results we aren’t happy with from Super Rugby Unlocked so we can’t wait to play against the same opposition.
‘I pride myself on having fun with the skills and obviously the game was taken away from us for reasons we couldn’t control,’ he adds. ‘Now we just have to give it our best. I also can’t wait for the fans to get back so we can give them some exciting rugby.‘
Simelane’s smile is back and the Lions are about to reap the benefits.