Hung out to die

RYAN VREDE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says the late Solly Tyibilika was always fighting a losing battle.

Solly Tyibilika’s career died long before his life ended. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that his life ended because his career died.

The why and how are important in equal measure when reflecting on his career and life. Why Tyibilika, who, by all accounts, had become mixed up with elicitors of trouble, was murdered in a hail of bullets in a Gugelethu shebeen on a Sunday afternoon, was still under investigation at the time of writing. How the 32-year-old went from crossing the tryline on debut for the Springboks in 2004 to lying in police chalk lines seven years later, is compelling. It is the rugby tragedy of our time.

I was lunching with a Springbok and former team-mate of Tyibilika’s at the time the news of his death broke. As details of its nature emerged – a calculated, gang-style hit that saw his body pumped with what an eye witness deemed ‘countless shots’ – his reaction struck me as strange. Tyibilika’s violent end was not unexpected. Through at least 20 text messages the player showed me it became apparent that this sentiment was shared by even those players who were closest to him. Certainly his death was lamented in these messages, but it was telling that most senders were not particularly surprised by its nature.

‘When Solly felt cared for he was invested in his career and determined to succeed,’ the player said. ‘When he felt hard done by he could be pretty self-destructive.’

There were to be increasing instances when his emotional immaturity manifested in this manner as his career progressed. But this wasn’t always so. Tyibilika caught the Sharks’ eye in 2003 off the back of impressive performances for Griquas. He would establish himself as a regular member of their Super Rugby squad – his pace, upper-body strength, work rate and robust approach placing him among the top openside flankers in the country at the time. He lacked the finesse, guile, vision and tactical appreciation that separated the good scavengers from the great ones, but attained a level of consistency that appealed to Springbok coach Jake White in late 2004.

There were muted grumbles of a political agenda when Tyibilika was named in White’s end-of-year tour squad. However, the overriding feeling was that Tyibilika had the potential to develop into a more than competent Test player.

He acquitted himself well on debut against Scotland at Murrayfield, becoming the first black African to score a try for the Springboks. He started against Argentina in Buenos Aires a week later and maintained a high enough standard domestically in 2005 to be a part of White’s squad for the Test season. There had been little evidence to support rhetoric about the wealth of world-class black talent in Tyibilika’s home province, the Eastern Cape. Tyibilika, it appeared, would be a groundbreaker in this regard, particularly since he was a forward, a rare commodity in a region renowned for producing backline players.

Then something happened that hinted at a delinquent demon that would surface with greater and lesser degrees of intensity as his career progressed. The Springboks staged a Test in East London against Uruguay. Tyibilika scored twice in the 134-3 rout and later invited friends who had travelled from his hometown, New Brighton, up to his hotel room to share a celebratory drink. He left three days later, having missed the team’s flight to Durban and depleting most of his not inconsiderable match fee.

Still, there were glimpses of brilliance that inspired. A month later Tyibilika would outplay Australian George Smith in a Tri-Nations Test at Ellis Park, before being injured and substituted at half-time by Schalk Burger.

The Springboks won 33-20 but Tyibilika only featured in the southern hemisphere showpiece again a year later, playing in losing sides in three Tests,  although not looking an impostor in elevated company. This was particularly pertinent, given that in a post-match press conference a week before, White had intimated that Tyibilika was included because of the colour of his skin. There was a clamour for the in-form Luke Watson’s inclusion after the Springboks suffered a 49-0 defeat to Australia in Brisbane, but White explained his decision to go with Tyibilika, in light of Danie Rossouw’s tour-ending injury, saying: ‘We need to be honest about sensitivities of the make-up of the team and show that transformation is happening in our country. We have got a guy like Solly on tour. There is a relationship in a team structure and we need to be considerate to that dynamic between the players.’

In Burger’s injury-enforced absence White later called Tyibilika the best openside flank in the country prior to the Loftus Test against New Zealand. The 47 minutes Tyibilika played in that heavy defeat would be his last for the Springboks.

This had much to do with a move to the Lions in 2007, one, he said, necessitated by the lack of game time he was getting in Durban. Breaking into the World Cup squad was his top priority and White had offered assurances that he was in the planning for the tournament. Eager to make a good impression on his new employers, Tyibilika trained relentlessly in the off-season and was unrivalled in the conditioning stakes when tests were conducted in camps in preparation for the Super Rugby campaign. However, his contribution amounted to little more than hit-outs in a couple of pre-season friendlies. Deemed surplus to requirements, Tyibilika was relegated to the Vodacom Cup side, where, he claimed, the coach wasn’t aware of his demotion and not prepared to integrate him into his plans. Thus began Tyibilika’s descent, marked by regular absenteeism and an ever-declining appetite for the game and its demands. His hunger for hedonism grew in direct proportion. He was relegated to club rugby. This a year after playing the All Blacks. The Lions released him from his R700 000-a-year contract. His ambition of breaking into the World Cup squad lay in tatters. He would end up watching the final in an East London shebeen.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) made weak attempts at rehabilitating a man it once claimed to have great faith in. The Lions are even more culpable. Certainly Tyibilika must not be mitigated for his self-destructive behaviour, but he was failed by those who professed to have his interests at heart.

He is not alone in this regard. There have been varying levels of incompetence and irresponsibility in Saru’s dealings with black players specifically. Top South African coach Heyneke Meyer relayed the story of Chiliboy Ralepelle and Hilton Lobberts’ selection to tour Europe with the Springboks in 2006 to me. Ralepelle and Lobberts were among the best in their positions in the world at U19 level. Prior to their announcement in the squad Meyer pleaded with Saru not to take them, citing their emotional and physical immaturity and stressing that they would be better equipped two years from then.

Lobberts is said to have blown the R400 000 he made on two Volkswagen GTIs, supporting Meyer’s former assertion. He hasn’t played for South Africa in five years and hasn’t looked close to doing so. Ralepelle struggled with recurring injuries thereafter, lending support to the latter offering. He also suffered at the hands of national coaches who told the world he was rugby royalty, but treated him like a leper.

There are others who exhibited a capacity to overcome setbacks, former Springbok wing Ashwin Willemse being the prime example. Despite being plagued by injuries, Willemse  refused to allow his spirit to be killed. He regained fitness and was included in the 2007 World Cup squad. He now has a burgeoning career as an analyst on SuperSport that is far removed from the path his life could have followed had he opted to surrender to Hope’s assassin and return to the drug and gang culture that was a feature of his childhood. Tyibilika didn’t possess Willemse’s immense resolve. His tendency for self-sabotage demanded that he had a strong mentor, even a team of them, who could constantly reinforce his value, celebrate his talent and be prepared to talk hard when needed. In addition, he also needed brutal honesty and a clearly defined goal from his coaches. Instead he found the validation and emotional investment he sought from men who fuelled the beast within.

There is no question that Tyibilika was a fundamentally good man whose life course diverted from a route that promised a rich legacy to one that led to a premature and deeply saddening end. But that alone doesn’t warrant bringing his story into the national consciousness.

There are lessons in Tyibilika’s life and his violent death that must be heeded by the game’s administrators. History reflects that professional black athletes, specifically those from low socio-economic backgrounds, are more prone to delinquency than their white counterparts. A range of explanations has been offered for this, the primary one being the former’s generally underdeveloped emotional intelligence and life skills which compromises their capacity to adequately deal with their ascent from paupers to princes. This rings true for South African rugby players, where that division between privileged and poor is even more pronounced.

This is the stark education that Tyibilika’s story must provide. It is utterly unacceptable that 16 years into the professional era the game’s administrators still haven’t established a world-class programme that focuses on equipping young black players with the skills needed to negotiate challenges they will encounter in their careers. This must be an issue that commands immediate attention.

Tyibilika possessed some measure of fight even in the last moments, dragging his bullet-riddled body across the ground for a couple of metres in search of help. His physical wounds ultimately proved to be mortal, but the mental wounds he incurred in the latter part of his professional career had long since killed his spirit. How different it could all have been had someone cared for him enough to make his mind bulletproof.

– This article appears in the January issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, on sale now at selected outlets