It’s a rare cold and windy Saturday afternoon for Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a seaside city known for its year-round summer days. Around 100 people and their dogs making noise of 1,000, braved the weather at Kings Park for Durban club College Rovers against Welkom Rovers.
Among the 30 men pounding the turf was Jongi Nokwe, once the most expensive and exciting player in South Africa. In his heyday, Nokwe had one thing that all rugby players, envy – speed. He could run 100 meters in 10.4 seconds.
It was August 30, 2008 at Ellis Park stadium, in Johannesburg when Nokwe did the damage with four tries in 55 minutes.
“No man, that was a long time ago, 2008. I have long passed that. The feeling was great at the time, I was not playing for the record, I was enjoying my game,” says Nokwe.
Although a lot of time has passed since then, most fans have vivid memories of that day.
“I remember the long distance try. Jongi ran like he had stolen the ball and the police were chasing him down. He had incredible speed but the tries could not be classified the best ever. Not everyone scores a test try against the Aussies but Jongi crossed the line against them four times,” says Simnikiwe Xabanisa, the Sunday Times sports editor who was at Ellis Park that day.
“Coach Peter de Villiers was just appointed to the position. Being a black coach, he had all odds against him. To get the best out of a player you need to know which buttons to push, this is something white coaches didn’t understand about black players. De Villiers was able to get the best out of Nokwe… Peter was under a lot of pressure. He had lost the away games in Australia and New Zealand and needed a crucial win in Ellis Park. South Africa won 53-8.”
Thirty-two-year-old Nokwe played four tests for South Africa in 2008 and 2009, Australia was the third. With the glory, came pain. Seconds after the fourth try, Nokwe was stretchered off with an ankle injury. Damage born in the joy of success; that troubles him to this day.
A career plagued by bad luck had its good luck too. In 2004, former Springbok coach Jake White picked Nokwe from nowhere – small country union Boland Cavaliers. White had plans to play Nokwe in the 2007 World Cup, but the winger had to wait until August 2008 for his debut against Argentina under Peter de Villiers.
Another blow for Nokwe, De Villiers was forced to drop him from the World Cup squad in 2011 because of injury, just weeks before the tournament.
“I have come to peace with the way my rugby career has been. I have enjoyed myself in topflight rugby, it was a wonderful experience. I have now found home with the team, this is where I will be dedicating my last days of playing,” says Nokwe.
On that Saturday, before a small crowd, Nokwe picked up the ball in his half and outran everyone for a brilliant try that sealed the win. He was so far ahead, he walked the last few yards.
Although Nokwe does not write off his chances of scraping back into topflight rugby, he says he wants to first win the national Community Cup. But it was not to be, despite beating Welkom, College Rovers finished fourth. This was a disappointing result for the Durban side that finished runners-up to Despatch from Port Elizabeth, in the inaugural tournament last year.
Kaizer Chiefs sevens coach and former Springbok player, Gcobani Bobo, played a part in Nokwe’s move from the Falcons Rugby Union in Gauteng province to Durban. During the offseason in December, Nokwe plays for the Kaizer Chiefs sevens team, an offshoot of the famous football club, in George in the Western Cape. Former South African cricketer, Makhaya Ntini, is the manager.
Guiding the 115-year-old College Rovers is another former professional player, a winger for the Sharks, Dutsy Noble, from Stellenbosch. Noble also represented South Africa in the sevens version of the sport.
“At 29, I have my first day job as an HR personnel. This is something I never planned but I am working hard to adjust from the many years of changing-rooms to the boardroom. Playing rugby is an addiction, but this is my next chapter in life,” says Noble.
The two experienced players are valued members of the squad.
“Jongi and Dusty Noble are two different characters. Each brings their different expertise to the youngsters in the club. Jongi does not speak all the time but when he starts talking everyone listens. He has that aura,” says Brian Batesman, head coach for College Rovers.
“It is our goal to strive to get players with wonderful experience. We are not a professional team like the Sharks, we can’t put our players on salaries but we look after them. Maybe we have the responsibility to facilitate for them to access work.”
The club’s investment in professional players gives it the edge. College Rovers have been rampant for the few past few years with a team of office workers, security personnel and students.
“I was an 18-year-old kid when Jongi demolished the Aussies. At the time, I couldn’t imagine I will one day play with him in the same team. I feel even more privileged that he’s my neighbor and a big brother. It’s an eye opener to have someone of his stature in your midst,” says lock forward Sanele Sibanda.
Sibanda is one of the two Zimbabwean professionals in the team, he has eight national caps. He says playing for the club will improve his chances of international rugby.
“It is very physical here, it’s a different environment all together. I have grown since coming here,” says Sibanda.
Xabanisa met Nokwe in his birthplace Keiskammahoek, where they were born in the Eastern Cape. Nokwe was a promising athlete breaking school track records. Xabanisa thinks Nokwe was not well looked after by the game. When Nokwe was in his prime, there was little money in rugby.
With the pace Nokwe had, he could have easily made a career in 200 meters or 400 meters track racing but he loved rugby and enjoyed playing it, says Xabanisa.
“Whoever was responsible did not do a good job. The teams he won games for had a responsibility to look after him, to equip him for life after rugby. That’s how you deal properly with your players. One thing about the sports career, there’s no guarantee,” he says.
“The train is never too late to prepare yourself for two careers.”
Nokwe, the conqueror of the Aussies, is working on both.