DURBAN – Rassie Erasmus is not in the habit of singling out players in public but the Springbok coach made an exception last week when he described Makazole Mapimpi as the “most improved player in the squad.”
In explaining what convinced him to pick Mapimpi for the Rugby Championship opener against Argentina, Erasmus said: “He’ll be the first guy to put up his hand and admit that there were certain technical areas where he struggled, like the high ball and certain defensive systems ...
But hell, I must say, if I ranked the players in the 35-man squad according to who had improved the most, Makazole is undoubtedly No 1.”
Mapimpi, who turned 28 last month, was mostly out of favour at the Sharks in Super Rugby this season but Erasmus picked him nonetheless for his greater Springbok squad.
Erasmus liked what he saw in training and selected him to start at Kings Park - the injury to Sbu Nkosi also playing its part.
“He is such a hard worker. He’s always fit and he’s always available to do extra training, and ready for the call of duty,” the coach said. “If there were certain aspects of his game that were a three or a four out of 10, they’re now closer to eight or nine. Add that to his X-factor with ball in hand and I had no hesitation in giving him a fantastic opportunity against the big boys.”
Mapimpi did not let his coach down, scoring two tries and producing a solid all-round game - that makes three tries in two Tests, which is par for the course for the try-scoring machine.
Pundits following the Pro 14 tournament concur, last week nominating Mapimpi for the Dream Team for his exploits for the Cheetahs in the competition. He scored an incredible 10 tries in just 13 matches. There was also seven tries for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup to go with 11 tries in 14 games for the Kings in his breakthrough season last year.
That amounts to 28 tries in a calendar year, a staggering tally, especially given that he was playing for unsuccessful teams.
It is not surprising that Mapimpi is still growing used to the spotlight when you consider this golden nugget was buried in Border club rugby for too long before Kings coach Deon Davids discovered his talent and brought him to the Kings.
That was about 18 months ago, making his selection for the Boks the rugby equivalent of a rags to riches story.
“I grew up in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, I went to location schools, I never thought I would become a professional rugby player and only switched from soccer to rugby at the age of 10 because it was something different,” the softly-spoken Mapimpi said after he joined the Sharks in January.
“The Stormers were my favourite team and Gio Aplon was my hero. I loved the way he attacked from the back and had no fear,” Mapimpi said.
“I also liked the way Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane played for the Sharks and it was a big honour for me last year to play alongside Lwazi in the SA ‘A’ team.”
Mapimpi asked his Cheetahs bosses for a release to join the Sharks because he wanted to play Super Rugby, having loved his time in the competition last year, including of course some memorable tries.
Last year there was no Mapimpi try more notable than his corner flag score against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane, which had the Aussie commentators in raptures.
“Yes, that was my favourite, I got the ball out wide and the emotion swept me away as I started beating defenders,” Mapimpi smiled.
Having run around a few would-be tacklers, Mapimpi had Karmichael Hunt to beat and proceeded to run inside the fullback, then outside, and then inside once more before finishing out wide, with Hunt clueless as to where the wing was.
Aussie commentator Phil Kearns, not known for his praise of South African players yelled: “That is just fantastic. What an amazing try. Hunt is going to need some dizzy pills.”
Mapimpi says that rugby affords him an opportunity to express himself.
“I am enjoying my rugby. I come from the rural areas of East London, and a lot has happened really quickly for me, but I have humble roots and know that I am going to have ups and downs in the game,” he says. “I am proud of what I have achieved.”