A handful of young rugby players from previously disadvantaged communities around South Africa have developed big dreams thanks to the SA Rugby Exchange Programme in conjunction with the British High Commission.
The programme, which SA Rugby joined in 2009, is aimed at boosting transformation by creating opportunities for black players and coaches to improve their skills through exchange programmes with overseas clubs. The project is funded by SA Rugby and the British High Commission.
One of the players currently benefitting from the programme is 25-year old flank Lwazi Ngcungama from Bhokodisa Location in the Gcilima township outside Port Shepstone, who played rugby for the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the FNB Varsity Shield competition from 2012 to 2015.
Ngcungama, who captained the Impi for two seasons, is currently playing for Kirkby Lonsdale Rugby Union Football Club, a Tier-1 team in the county of Cumbria in North West England. He is one of 15 players who are currently on exchange at clubs throughout the UK, which includes Thurrock RUFC, Selkirk RFC and Alloa RFC.
Other players on the exchange programme include Vusumsi Dyantjies (Norton RFC), Zwelakhe Sodladla (Norton RFC), Daniel Thompson (Thurrock RUFC), Dashton Wellman (Selkirk RFC), Unathi Kongwana (Derbyshire), Jarrett Crouch (Thurrock RUFC), Lindokuhle Mbatha (Kirkby Lonsdale RUFC), Seabelo Sam (Alloa RFC), Mpumelelo Mxretwana (Bridlington RUFC), Yaasier Hartzenberg (Selkirk RUFC) and former Blue Bulls, and Griquas and Leopards Under-19 and Under-21 player Hagen Mumba (Thurrock RUFC).
The coaches selected for the programme this season, meanwhile, include Njabulo Zulu, a former Wanderers Under-21 coach, and former Blue Bulls Currie Cup wing Trompie Nontshinga, who were placed at Upper Eden RUFC in Cumbria.
“The Rugby Exchange Programme offers young players and coaches a new life experience and an opportunity to grow their rugby careers,” said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux.
“Aside from experiencing new cultures and meeting new people, they are able to improve their rugby skills by learning from players and coaches overseas. This programme plays an important role in our development plans, while also proving our commitment to transformation as set out in our Strategic Transformation Plan.
“We would like to thank the British High Commission for their valuable contribution to the Rugby Exchange Programme and Richard de Jager, who has skilfully managed it since inception. We all share in the excitement of producing quality rugby players and individuals.”
British High Commissioner Dame Judith Macgregor was equally delighted with the programme and said: “I am delighted to be support the SA Rugby Exchange Programme through funding from the High Commission. It enables young players and coaches from disadvantaged communities in South Africa to travel to the UK, spend time with local rugby clubs and to learn more about the game, whilst developing their rugby and wider skills. The programme has reaped dividends and I hope to see more such successes, showing the UK’s commitment to supporting transformation in rugby and across South African society.”
Thanks to the programme Ngcungama harbours aspirations of becoming a professional rugby player and he hopes that his experience in the FNB Varsity Shield and at Kirkby Lonsdale will assist in realising this dream.
“I hope this experience boosts my rugby career because I have learned a lot from the Varsity Shield competition and from being here overseas,” said Ngcungama. “It has really helped me grow my game.”
Having grown up in a township where rugby was not one of the first-choice sporting codes, Ngcungama admits that his passion for the game developed later than most rugby players and that he faced a few challenges along the way.
“I was mainly interested in football, especially in primary school, and I played cricket and basketball, although I was not that good at it. So I didn’t always have a passion for rugby,” he said.
“At first my parents did not approve at all, but I just kept on playing, pushing through, being selected for teams and getting awards. They then slowly but surely came around, and now they love the sport, especially my mother.”
Lukhanyo Am, who spent six months at Saracens between 2012 and 2013, is one of the success stories of the programme. He played for the Valke and Border Bulldogs in the last two seasons before being named in the Cell C Sharks 2016 training camp last season. He is currently on loan to the Southern Kings for the Vodacom Super Rugby season.
Boland flanker Chaney Willemse, meanwhile, played for Selkirk RUFC in Scotland between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.