Wandisile Simelane – the gifted young utility back looking to break into the Lions Super Rugby squad this year – readily, if not sheepishly, admits to not being all that au fait with Stan Lee’s Marvel comics, or indeed the superheroes.
Given that the marketing department at SA Rugby has dreamt up the idea that Super Rugby franchises wear Marvel superhero costumes as jerseys (the Lions will represent Spider-Man; the Bulls, Captain America; the Sharks, Black Panther; and the Stormers, Thor) when playing each other in this year’s campaign, the rookie has more than just a crash course on the playing front ahead of him.
Fortunately, when it comes to getting up to speed on his superheroes, he has comic head Tyrone Green to help him out. Green is a fellow Lions rookie and former Jeppe High School for Boys, Wits and South Africa Under-20 teammate.
But to break into the team that has made the past three Super Rugby finals – and make an impact while doing so – Simelane will need superhero gold dust sprinkled liberally on every aspect of his play, which so far has brought him to the threshold of playing in the biggest southern hemisphere competition at the ripe old age of 20.
Spider-Man meets Hulk
When asked what superpower he would like to possess, Simelane pauses and asks if he can have a mix, before coming up with a combination of Spider-Man’s web-slinging ability and the Hulk’s brawn. “If I could just gooi (throw) my web, fly and have that power, I’d be sorted.”
At 89kg and 1.8m (“and growing”, he says hopefully), the youngster from Power Park in Soweto comes across as a regular Peter Parker or Bruce Banner (Spider-Man and Hulk’s respective alter egos), thanks to a ready smile and a generally unaffected air about him.
But there is nothing shy or retiring about his on-field persona, which is a heady mix of mercurial and insouciant with a dash of the kind of self-belief (or arrogance) reserved for those who go on to be all-time greats.
A case in point of his bulletproof confidence comes from his junior school days at Dalmondeor, an Afrikaans primary school in the south of Johannesburg. His then coach, Pieter van Heerden, who described him as already having been “headstrong” at that age, recently told SA Rugby magazine a story that neatly encapsulates this.
“I remember Dalmondeor playing a final and leading by three points when the opposition had an attack on our try line late in the game,” Van Heerden remembers. “They had a massive lock, who bullied our players the whole game, and I can still see Wandi defending next to the ruck.
“He taunted that lock to come at him and score and when the boy did, Wandi knocked him backwards in a shuddering tackle and stole the ball off him to win us the game. Wandisile has big-match temperament. He lives for big games and moments and falls a bit off the pace when the pressure isn’t there.”
Simelane unwittingly confirms this when asked if, even by the standards of a man who has played for SA Schools and the SA Under-19 teams twice, Super Rugby may have come too early in his development, or indeed if he feels under pressure.
“I actually can’t wait, I wish it could come even sooner,” he says frankly. “I’ve put in the work, I’ve done everything I can personally to get myself ready for this opportunity, and in actual fact I can’t wait, I’d love it if it could happen tomorrow. I feel super ready for it.”
Stick to Simelane if you want to be famous
Simelane’s attraction for the Lions is a versatile skill set, which allows him to play every position in the backline except maybe scrum half. Possessed with deceptive explosiveness for a man of average build in the game, a low centre of gravity and the feline balance that comes with that attribute, Simelane can step an opponent in the proverbial phone booth. He has the ability to see and execute a pass or offload, and giftwraps that package with the searing pace of one who ran the 100m in 10.8s while at Jeppe.
The result is a player teammates should stick to on the field if they intend to be famous, because opportunities abound around Simelane. An unintended consequence is how his professional coaches have taken almost poetic licence on his versatility by using him everywhere on the pitch, much to the dismay of his junior coaches.
Van Heerden and Brendan Gittins, his former coach at Jeppe, feel he is an outside centre and that, as an influential player whose strength is breaking the line, he is wasted on the wing, a position he has begun turning up in since last year.
But the player himself has no such reservations: “I’m honestly comfortable in any position, especially right now. If you’d asked me in high school which position I was comfortable in, I would have told you 13 [outside centre] or fullback. But right now, just to get my Super Rugby debut, anywhere would be good enough for me.”
Short-lived football career
A possible explanation as to Simelane’s nonchalance about where he plays may well come from the fact that he could easily have played football instead of rugby. Growing up, he was a massive Kaizer Chiefs supporter whose role models were Collins Mbesuma and the late Emmanuel “Scara” Ngobese.
As an attacking midfielder and striker who went for trials at Chiefs and played for Moroka Swallows at the Nike Under-15 games, he was convinced he was destined to be a professional footballer: “I used to watch those guys and tell myself ‘I’m going to play soccer my whole life’.
“But then my dad took me to an Afrikaans school where there was no soccer. But you were forced to do a sport, so I did athletics and rugby. As I started playing rugby, I found out I was actually good at it and went to Under-12 trials for the Lions and made that team.
“The following year, I made the Craven Week Under-13 team and I got a scholarship to Jeppe. That’s when my dad said I had to take the opportunity, because I wasn’t going to study for free with soccer.”
For all that, Simelane is not entirely sold on the idea that playing football at a high level made rugby an easier game for him to play: “It helped my kicking, in high school I was a goalkicker and even with the weird goal-kicking technique I have – I still kick it straight – I had an 80% average, which isn’t bad.
“In terms of space, it’s honestly two different sport … it did help me in a way in rugby, but they’re just two different sports.”
Perhaps as a means of keeping himself grounded, Simelane has his parents’ names (Christopher, a Metro police officer, and Gloria, who works at TransUnion) tattooed on his forearm, with his younger brother Sanele’s next to be inked.
Once that’s completed, expect to see him exercise his superpowers by flying and bursting through Super Rugby defences.
As a team that has made the Super Rugby final for the past three years running – and lost just once to another South African franchise (the Sharks, last year) in 22 matches stretching back to May 2015 – the Lions’ recent history is their superpower.
Swys de Bruin’s men know that to be the best they first have to dominate at home, which by extension means they know how to put a Super Rugby campaign together. That said, history will be tested by how many players they have lost – mostly to old coach Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester in England – over the years.
Yet, for all those losses, they’re still a better team than most think they are, owing to their new talent and how good their first XV remains.
Somewhat fittingly for a competition played on four different continents, Super Rugby has a reputation for being a tournament of attrition. Having lost Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer, Jaco Kriel, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Howard Mnisi, the Lions are a little short on depth.
De Bruin is missing a proven hooker to back up World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Malcolm Marx, and the Lions in general are short a grinding number four lock. Yes, they have incredible youngsters coming through in prop Carlu Sadie, utility backs Simelane, Green and Gianni Lombard, loose forward Hacjivah Dayimani and centre Manuel Ras. But not many of those, who have yet to play Super Rugby, will necessarily hit the ground running, which means after a strong starting XV, they’re not sure what they have.
Planet (Power rank)
On paper, three successive finals looks sensational, except that the Lions have lost all three of these games. No team has ever needed that many chances to convert, so it’s difficult to see the Lions reaching the final for a fourth time in a row, let alone winning.
Also, as gleaming as their record is against local franchises, there have been signs that the fodder (the Sharks in particular) are fighting back.
Long story short, the Lions will do well to finish in the top five of the overall league table and win the South African Super Rugby Conference.
For a team that has made a habit of going all the way in the competition, the Lions didn’t tour particularly well last year, winning just one game (29-0 against the Waratahs in Sydney).
The Lions begin their season with an away game against the Jaguares, a side they’ve never beaten in Argentina. When they do finally go on their Australasian tour in April, they play the Brumbies, the Chiefs and the Crusaders – who beat them in the past two finals – which makes it a rocky old road for them.
The acid test for the Lions will be how well they travel.
This is part two of four in a series of profiles on the South African franchises who will be flying the flag in this year’s Super Rugby.
Part one: Super Rugby Superheroes | Siya Kolisi
Part three: Super Rugby Superheroes | Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira
Part four: Super Rugby Superheroes | Duane Vermeulen