‘There are a lot of regrets’
22 Sep 2010
Solly Tyibilika went from Test to First Division rugby in less than a year and a half. GRANT BALL, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out what went wrong.
Solly Tyibilika’s descent from being a Springbok to playing for one of the poorest teams in the country has been rapid. At the start of 2007, he was thinking of a World Cup place. A year later he was preparing for the Vodacom Cup with what is essentially a semi-professional union, Border.
In 2007, Tyibilika was on a R700 000-a-year contract with the Lions. In 2009, the Border Rugby Union operated on a monthly budget of R200 000 for all their players. However, he doesn’t regret the move.
‘I had a two-year deal at the Lions,’ he says, ‘but I didn’t want to stay for the second one. Those guys like to change what they tell the media.’
Where did it go wrong for the 31-year-old? Capped eight times for the Boks – four of which were against New Zealand and Australia – he played his last Test in the calamitous 45-26 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks at Loftus in 2006. With Schalk Burger out with a neck injury, coach Jake White had called Tyibilika the best opensider in the country a week before the match, but axed him in the aftermath and he was never to play for the Boks again.
Ask Tyibilika where it went wrong, and he says a lack of game time afforded to him by his provincial coaches was the problem. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
He left the Sharks at the end of 2006, as they had loose forwards Jacques Botes, Warren Britz, Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski and Bob Skinstad on their books, and joined the Lions, a move he regrets to this day.
When I meet with Tyibilika in East London the day before South Africa are to play Italy, he says seeing the Boks walking around the team’s beachfront hotel made him think about what could have been.
‘There are a lot of regrets, my man,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘I’m not pointing fingers, but I shouldn’t have moved to the Lions. But the Sharks, they had many good players.
‘I didn’t get game time at the Lions. If I was to have had any chance of playing for the Springboks under Jake, who was still backing me, I had to get game time. I just wanted to play. The more you play, the more you learn. I was looking for game time anywhere.’
In the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, there was repeated talk about the make-up of the 30-man Springbok squad and how many black African players would have to be included. If Tyibilika had produced a decent run of form, he would probably have gone to France.
Tyibilika was used in a couple of warm-up games in the Lions’ 2007 pre-season, but didn’t play for them for the first half of the year. Baywatch Grobbelaar, Ernst Joubert and Willem Alberts were initially deemed better starting options, and Tyibilika couldn’t keep out of the headlines – for the wrong reasons.
‘Solly goes AWOL’, ‘Solly goes AWOL again’ was the general theme. Lions coach Loffie Eloff said Tyibilika missed training with the Super 14 side three times, so he was dropped to the Vodacom Cup team. He then went missing when he returned to his home town of Port Elizabeth, with Saru and the Lions left to track him down. He was later relegated to playing club rugby for Wits and at the time, Tyibilika issued a formal apology to the union for missing practices and admitted his attitude was not in the spirit of the game.
However, three years later Tyibilika is in no mood for apologies.
‘I was the fittest loose forward when I arrived at the Lions, but when the squad for the Super 14 overseas tour was announced, I wasn’t in it. I had to automatically go to the Vodacom Cup side – as you would do at any union – but when I went there, the coach [Ian McDonald] said he didn’t know anything about me having to play for him. I went to training, but wasn’t in his plans because Loffie didn’t tell him to play me.
‘I asked him to please just give me game time, because the senior coach [Eloff] had promised me that he would then play me when they came back. But it never happened.
‘I wasn’t playing and I didn’t know what to do. My former club in PE was up in Joburg for an Easter rugby tournament, so I thought maybe I should play for them. The last time I’d played before that was in January during the two warm-up games, when I was subbed midway through. That was a big thing for the Lions. They asked me why I was playing for a club from another province. It was because I didn’t have a club in Joburg – I’d just come from Durban – and I hadn’t been given an opportunity with the Vodacom Cup team. I just needed game time, but the Lions were more negative towards me after that.
‘The reason I eventually left the Lions was because of the coach [Eloff]. He wasn’t honest with me – he lied to me. I would be going to training, but he’d say through the media that I had gone AWOL – I just couldn’t understand it. I was there for rugby and to get opportunities because I wanted to go to the World Cup.
‘Loffie never explained to me why I didn’t get game time. He was never open with me. Coaches stick to their plan, and I wasn’t a part of his. But when he bought me from the Sharks, he said I was part of the plan.’
After a controversial start to 2007, Tyibilika then injured his shoulder in the Currie Cup – where he was given game time – and then with his World Cup dream over, he again failed to attend practices. When he was relegated to the Vodacom Cup squad at the beginning of 2008, Tyibilika was clearly disillusioned and decided he would cut short his contract with the Lions.
For many Springboks, 2007 was an unforgettable year. For Tyibilika, it was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
He is currently in his third season in East London and life is very different to playing for bigger unions like the Sharks or Lions. With no sponsors, Border are struggling off the field and things aren’t much better on it – they didn’t win a single game in the Vodacom Cup. For those players who live on the outskirts of East London, even travelling to practices is a challenge.
‘Only 13 or 14 members of our entire squad are contracted,’ says Tyibilika. ‘The rest – who have other jobs – only get a match fee. We can also only have our practices after they’ve finished work at 5pm, so we train in the dark.
‘The guys who live in the townships have difficulty getting home as the taxis don’t run at night. We really need a sponsor to bring about change.
‘At the end of every Currie Cup, we lose players because all the cream gets bought by other unions. There’s no money here. Either the players take other offers, or they stop playing. We do get money from Saru, but that grant isn’t as much as it used to be.
It isn’t possible for players to earn salaries of R25 000 or R30 000 a month, for example, which is what other provincial players are being paid.’
Tyibilika has since fleetingly shown his ability at the top level, the last example being when he played for the Southern Kings against the British & Irish Lions last year.
He was one of two Border players selected, along with reserve scrumhalf Josh Fowles, but says that while it was a memorable day for the region, Border haven’t reaped any of the rewards.
He also isn’t overly enthused by Saru’s promises that the region will have a Super Rugby franchise.
‘I’m not sure what goes on there in terms of the administration,’ he says. ‘Each day is a different story. After the Kings-Lions match, everyone said things would be better in terms of money, but we haven’t seen any of it and there’s been no change. We need sponsors to get quality players.’
Ironically, as the topic turns to the Kings, someone who is willing to comment on their future arrives at the table where we’re sitting. Dumile Mateza, a rugby commentator during the 1995 World Cup, greets Tyibilika with a handshake, a hug, and ‘Solly, you look exactly like your father’. Mateza then goes straight into his views on the Kings’ problems.
‘I was arguing with [Saru deputy president] Mark Alexander the other day about the Kings,’ Mateza says to Tyibilika. ‘They can’t be run by amateur organisations like the EP and Border unions, they must be driven by a group of businessmen in order to make it a viable organisation. There’s no way a president of an amateur rugby body can run it professionally. They must run the amateur side of things and then put in rugby structures, and we [the businessmen] must bring in the money and run it.
‘We are saying to Saru that the Kings must be run by a group of black businessmen if they’re serious about transformation. Saru will get more credibility if they do that rather than the way they’re pussy-footing around now.’
As for Tyibilika’s credibility, it took a dent in April this year. After captaining the side, he was dropped for Border’s match against Boland because he missed practices. Border coach David Maidza axed Tyibilika for that game and took the captaincy away because he felt he wasn’t setting a good enough example for the younger players.
‘Missing that practice was down to miscommunication,’ says Tyibilika. ‘I had sent our manager an SMS telling him I was away for the Easter weekend and that I’d only be back on the Monday afternoon. No one told me we were practising on Monday morning, and I couldn’t get back as I was using public transport. The manager only told the coach in the afternoon.
‘They told me they were going to drop me but they’d play me again as long as I went to training. I played the following week.’
When I ask Tyibilika what advice he would give to black players trying to make the step up to professional rugby, he seems oblivious to the irony of his response.
– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine