EAST LONDON - The one area that will be keenly anticipating the SuperSport Rugby Challenge’s visit to its shores will be the little-known village of Tsholomnqa, which is about 40km outside East London.
The Rugby Challenge will make a stop at the BCM Stadium in East London on Sunday, June 4, as one of the tournament’s festivals, and nobody will be happier about the prospect of having professional rugby to watch than the folks from Tsholomnqa.
Even lesser known about the village is the fact that it is something approaching a conveyor belt for rugby talent, with former Border and Sharks wing Ian Fihlani and Southern Kings revelation Makazole Mapimpi both from the area.
Another product from Tsholomnqa is Griffons lock Samora Fihlani. As the surname suggests, Fihlani is related to Ian, their fathers being brothers.
And the story he tells about rugby, or the obsession with it, is something of an eye opener, even in the old debate about the Eastern Cape being the home of black rugby.
“I grew up in a community where rugby is the only sport everybody knows,” he explained. “As a kid in the village we only grew up playing rugby and not any other sport, so I started playing rugby from primary school.
“Rugby is in my blood because I grew up in a family where everyone loves and plays rugby, so as a youngster you always knew the only sport to watch or play was rugby.”
Having a professional cousin shooting the lights out for Border also helped with the motivation: “Growing up my cousin Ian Fihlani played for Border from under-17s. As kids growing up we always watched him and wanting to play to the level that he achieved in his rugby career.
“As the first professional rugby player from Tsholomnqa Ian gave a lot of youngsters hope that if you’re determined and focus on rugby you can achieve higher honours.”
With Fihlani junior having turned out to be so solidly built he can play both lock and blindside flank at 1.96m and 115kg, the genes clearly went a bit rogue down the years, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Absolute proof that he is a lock by trade and a lock by thoughts is the players he talks about as his role models: “I grew up as a big fan of Blue Bulls rugby, there was a guy who played lock for them, Krynauw Otto.
“I grew up watching him and Mark Andrews together in the Springbok team. I liked their aggression and the way they played in general.”
Fihlani, who won the Currie Cup First Division with the Griffons against the Leopards last year, is happy with just being back on the field after a horrendous knee injury sustained in 2013 nearly ended his career.
“Straight after the game, I thought it was a minor injury but when I went for scans I realised how bad it was,” he remembered.
“The people I was talking to at the hospital were telling me it might be a career-ending injury, so there was a lot going through my mind.
“The doctor told me it was the longest operation it had taken him – it took him around seven hours – and he said I might never get back on the field again. It took me two and a half years to be fully fit again.”