Smart management of Aphelele Fassi will pay dividends for Springboks in future
After a wait, Sharks player Aphelele Fassi joined the Springboks – and on his first outing he made quite a splash.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Aphelele Fassi began his Test career with a bang when he scored a try with his first touch of the ball against Georgia last month. More recently, the 23-year-old produced an influential attacking and aerial performance against Argentina in the first match of the Rugby Championship.
“Fassi is the real deal,” Breyton Paulse told DM168 in the aftermath of South Africa’s 32-12 victory. It’s some endorsement from a former Bok winger who played 64 Tests and faced the likes of Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen in their prime.
“He’s just so mature and composed. Some players succumb to the pressure in the early stages of their Test career. [He] seems to embrace it – which is a sign of a special talent.”
The back-three combination of Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi contributed massively to the World Cup title success in 2019 as well as a series victory against the British & Irish Lions earlier this month.
As the away Tests against Australia and New Zealand loom, however, coach Jacques Nienaber may explore outstanding alternatives such as Fassi, S’bu Nkosi and Damian Willemse.
“Jacques and Rassie Erasmus have created this beautiful environment where the players coming in are welcomed and encouraged to express themselves,” Paulse observed. “A lot’s been said about the World Cup winners and how they have kept things going in 2021, but I’ve been just as impressed by the newcomers and how quickly they’ve adjusted to the pace and intensity of Test rugby.”
Change in mindset
While Fassi was forced to wait a year longer than expected to win his first Test cap – owing to the global pandemic and the cancellation of SA’s Test fixtures in 2020 – he realises he will not become a great player overnight.
“The 2020 season was cut short and I had to accept that that was out of my control,” Fassi told DM168. “Then I injured my shoulder and was out for several months. It required a change of mindset.
“There was a moment where I was like, ‘Jeez, do I have to wait another year for this to happen?’ Luckily, I bounced back in time to play some rugby before the 2021 Test season.
“When I heard that I had been included in the Bok squad ahead of the Georgia match, it took some time to sink in. I’d worked so hard towards that, and when my name was mentioned I could barely believe it.
“Ultimately it meant I could take my game forward, that I could continue to grow…”
Serving the team’s interests
Fassi didn’t feature in the three Tests against the Lions. Nevertheless, he believes that the experience of training against the first-choice players has aided his development. What’s more, he feels that the nonplaying squad members deserve credit for the part they played in a landmark series victory.
“Some people looking in from the outside might think that it’s been tough for someone like me to be left out. Personally, I believe it’s a huge achievement to be part of a squad that’s won a series against the Lions.
“You might say that [I] and others didn’t play, but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t contribute. We looked at how the Lions attacked and defended, and we brought that to the training field every time we ran against the starting XV.”
Some among the rugby fraternity have called for Fassi to replace Le Roux at fullback sooner rather than later. The latter has played more than 60 Tests for South Africa.
“Maybe people forget that I’m new to the setup. I’ve only played two games,” Fassi said with a chuckle.
“I’ve grown since I’ve joined the squad. The knowledge and the experience the more established guys have to share… I’m really upping my game just by training alongside those guys.
“It’s not about me wanting to play fullback or me wanting to do this or that,” he said of his current role on the wing.
“It’s about what the team needs from me in any given situation.”
Using his story to inspire others
Fassi made his Super Rugby debut as recently as 2019. Three years before that, he was a schoolboy at Dale College.
His life has changed dramatically since he left Qonce (Kings William’s Town) to take up an opportunity with the Sharks. He still remembers, though, what it felt like to be doubted by some at a young age.
“I went through some things at high school,” he said. “Not everyone wanted me to succeed as a rugby player.
“I think it’s a good lesson, though. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do. It comes down to your mindset and how far you are willing to push yourself to realise your dreams.
“Maybe my story will inspire other people to shoot for their goals.”
He explains how his resolve was tested at the time of the transition. While it was exciting to receive an opportunity with a major team like the Sharks, he was concerned that he might not fit into a new culture and system.
Fassi’s fears were allayed after he arrived at the franchise. He received some support from others who had walked a similar path from the Eastern Cape to Durban. Sharks and Bok centre Lukhanyo Am, for example, had grown up in the same town.
“With those guys around me, it was easier to communicate and to understand what was required of me. When I got my opportunity with the senior side, I grabbed it with both hands.”
In late-2019, Fassi watched Am and Mapimpi combine to score a try in the World Cup final in Japan. The success of the national team, and indeed the impact on South Africa as a whole, inspired him to take his own game to another level.
Fassi was one of the standout players in the 2020 Super Rugby tournament – and the Sharks the top-ranked team – before the pandemic brought the season to a halt.
Since joining the setup this past June, Fassi has taken the lessons relayed by his teammates and coaches to heart. He believes that the experience has made him a better person as well as a better player.
“What’s the biggest takeaway from my time at the Boks? You should never back down from a hard conversation. If you don’t go out of your way to talk to someone, you might not realise what they’ve experienced or how they might be able to help you on your own journey.
“After having those conversations, you might be in a position to help someone else in a similar manner down the line. Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo, Cheslin… I listen carefully to what they say when they talk about all sorts of things – not just rugby. I soak it all in.”
It remains to be seen how Fassi will be used for the remainder of the Rugby Championship.
After a long season, injuries may force Nienaber to revise his back-three combination ahead of the crunch matches against the All Blacks on 25 September and 2 October. That is, if those matches go ahead. At the time of going to print there was still uncertainty about the 2021 tournament’s future.
Alternatively, the Bok coach may decide that Fassi has served his apprenticeship and is ready for the responsibility of playing in the big Tests.
“I won’t lie, facing the All Blacks would be a huge experience,” Fassi said.
“When I was growing up, I supported the Springboks and one of my brothers supported New Zealand. So, whenever the two teams met, there was quite a battle in our house.
“To face those All Blacks players would be quite a challenge, but a challenge I would relish. It’s something I want to experience at least once in my life.”
Le Roux, Kolbe and Mapimpi are likely to start the big matches – if fit. Perhaps Fassi will be picked to make an impact from the bench.
“I would include Fassi in my squad of 23 every week,” said Paulse. “He’s like Kolbe in the sense that you expect him to do something whenever he gets the ball.
“His body language suggests that he is comfortable with that responsibility. That special energy and attitude can lift an entire team.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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