Siviwe Soyizwapi has shouldered extra responsibility as a player and leader for the Blitzboks, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
French journalist, critic and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Those words still echo across centuries of human activity. In this case, it best sums up the tale of Siviwe Soyizwapi and his rise within the Blitzboks’ ranks.
The Springbok Sevens team was said to be weakened by the departure of Seabelo Senatla. It was all going to change, it was all going to be different without him. Except it wasn’t, because as soon as the team lost him, they gained another speed merchant in the form of Soyizwapi.
Soyizwapi’s mesmerising form had drawn comparisons between him and the more renowned Senatla. But the former, who’s about to enter his fifth season with the Blitzboks, is adamant he wants to blaze his own trail and create his own legacy.
Senatla had long been the Blitzboks’ standout finisher, but the arrival and form of Soyizwapi has breathed new life and competition into that role. By all accounts, Senatla’s slip down the Blitzboks’ pecking order has more to do with his ventures into the longer form of the game at the Stormers and Western Province, not to mention injuries.
That the wing berth has been filled by Soyizwapi in his absence should come as no surprise, though. The 26-year-old has made great strides since his transition from fifteens to the abbreviated format in 2013.
‘It’s nice to have the backing of your coach, especially when there is competition for the position you play in,’ Soyizwapi tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I used to travel as the non-playing reserve, but now after a couple of full seasons with the senior team, I’m more confident in my abilities and am willing to discuss and work on my shortcomings. I think that is what motivated the coach to stick with me.’
Soyizwapi’s shortcomings must have been addressed or he wouldn’t have been elevated to the role of stand-in captain for the 2018-19 season due to the injury-enforced absence of Philip Snyman.
‘The captaincy was never something I envisioned or dreamed about. But when I was chosen for the role, it felt natural. Yes, it was on a temporary basis, but I enjoyed it and would love to do it again.’
‘Shakes’, as he is affectionately known, started at Dale College and in Border’s junior ranks before he made a name for himself at Eastern Province. In 2014, Soyizwapi caught the eye when he starred for the EP Kings in a warm-up game against Wales in Port Elizabeth, with the match forming part of the visitors’ preparation for the opening Test against the Springboks. As expected, the Kings lost, 34-12, but Soyizwapi held his own against Alex Cuthbert throughout the match and scored his side’s opening try.
A mere 10 days later Soyizwapi pulled off a mini-masterclass as the Kings hammered a Blues Bulls XV 66-28 in a Super Rugby friendly at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. While the wing didn’t get on the scoreboard, his scintillating breaks from deep had Bulls defenders grasping at air and the rapturous PE crowd leaping to their feet.
Neither the game nor the result bore any significance. But in the context of Soyizwapi’s career, his sparkling individual display proved to be the catalyst for bigger and better things. At the time, then Kings coach Carlos Spencer lauded his charge, saying: ‘Shakes was outstanding. This performance showed what he can create. He is a guy with so much talent and it’s good to see him express himself.’
It wasn’t long before Soyizwapi hit the Stormers’ radar, but he was quickly roped into the national sevens set-up instead. Between then and 2016, he featured primarily for the Sevens Academy side and drifted in and out of the Blitzboks’ training squads. On 9 April 2016, Soyizwapi made a try-scoring debut on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit in the Blitzboks’ 50-0 thrashing of Russia at the Hong Kong Sevens.
‘The transition is mentally and physically challenging, particularly if you don’t come from a sevens background. Everything needs to be on a higher level – your fitness, work rate and discipline – as a player you have to realign your working philosophy and apply yourself just that little bit more.
‘But once you’ve settled in and proved you can meet the necessary requirements, you’ll be rewarded. I’ve committed myself to sevens full time and I doubt I’ll be moving back to fifteens,’ he says.
Of course, on his point of being justly rewarded, Soyizwapi speaks from experience. Having swiftly progressed through the ranks, he now not only holds down a regular starting spot, but has also developed into one of coach Neil Powell’s most trusted lieutenants.
However, Soyizwapi is quick to deflect attention away from his growth, displaying the A-type humility that epitomises the Blitzboks set-up under Powell’s reign.
‘Everyone involved with the Blitzboks deserves credit for their contribution to putting the structures in place that led to our success as a team and our development as individuals. Our system is working for us and if we stick with it this season, we’ll be serious series title contenders again,’ he says.
With his unexpected speed and the threat he poses when in possession of the ball, Soyizwapi is bound to be compared to Senatla more often than not this season, whether he likes it or not. But he reiterates that he doesn’t take it seriously.
‘We’re different players with different attributes that are equally important to the team. Obviously “Sea” is a great player, but I try to be the best version of myself without measuring my progress against other people’s success. I don’t let it get into my head. I just concentrate on contributing to the team as best I can.’
‘At the moment, finishing and executing under pressure are the strongest features of my game. I’m working hard on my defence and my ability to compete at the breakdown. If I improve my tackling and my work on the ground, it will add another dimension to the Blitzboks’ armoury and that’s all I want for now.’
*This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine.
Photo: Getty Images