In team sports, just about every player has a nickname. It is part mocking, part acceptance. Some are more obscure than others, but some seem to fit just so.
So, when the Sharks announced their Young Player of The Year at the team awards for 2018, the chorus of “Brenda, Brenda! Brenda, Brenda!” was revealing.
The gangly figure of Aphelele Fassi, dapper in a suit and sneakers, bashfully accepted the applause and tried to slink back to his seat as quietly as possible. As those who know him best will attest, he is notoriously shy.
“You don’t get to choose your nickname. Brenda seems to have stuck, but there are a few others that are popping up,” he said cheerfully as he assessed his 2019 season.
Having scooped the youngster award in 2018, picking up the 2019 Currie Cup Player of The Year gong at the same awards confirmed his growing influence. Fassi is on a path to significant achievement and the coaching staff who know precisely what they have in their hands have been managing his progress carefully.
The “Brenda” at the very back of the Sharks line certainly hit the high notes in the 2019 season. He has been managed sensitively, allowed to work on all elements of his game without the undue pressure of being the absolute go-to.
At just 21 years old, Fassi is still supposed to be learning the craft that makes for the complete, modern fullback. By all accounts, the player from Dale College in the Eastern Cape is a fast learner, and he is quickly adding depth to an already vast pool of natural gifts.
At full throttle he sort of glides across the surface, not really exerting much effort as he slips through the gears and hits top speed. There is a video of him chasing down Aphiwe Dyantyi when logic suggested that the Lions tearaway was out of reach.
For those who have seen him on the outer fields at King’s Park in Durban, his speed is even more impressive at close quarters. He can’t explain it, but Fassi knows he has an extra gear he can engage to get the hurry on when the situation demands it.
Against the Cheetahs, in the 2019 Currie Cup semifinal, it was revealing that the Sharks seemed to be in charge right up to the point that he limped off in the second half. “I couldn’t watch the rest of the game when I went, so I didn’t know what happened,” he recalled almost apologetically.
The Sharks’ game plan had worked a treat up to that point and it says much that young Fassi has become such a fulcrum, in just his second season.
“You want to keep improving yourself in every way. The guidance I have received is fantastic. Guys like Lwazi Mvovo, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Sbura Nkosi have been massive,” he said of his “big brothers”.
“We have been given freedom to express ourselves. To have fun. So yeah, it’s a lot of fun coming from the back and connecting as a back three,” he smiled.
Their chemistry off the field has helped things on the field immeasurably. As the youngster in the pack, Fassi has had to learn to assert himself, given his position on the field.
“It didn’t come easily. In every culture, there is a way of speaking to your elders. It didn’t come easily at first, but there is a way to speak to them without being rude. We have become very close, so it is second nature now,” he quipped.
The next Springbok 15?
He admitted earlier in the season that the most nervous he had been since becoming a Sharks player was when he had to go back to his alma mater and give a speech in front of the entire school.
“I am not a very talkative person, but that side has improved a lot. Everyone is a leader in their own position. So I told myself that, being the last set of eyes, you have to be vocal and you have to command at times. Curwin [Bosch] and Lwazi helped me a lot with that,” he said.
When there is no time for words, Fassi’s instincts have certainly made up the yards. The Sharks might not have hit the highs that they touched in 2018, but there remains the tantalising prospect of a backline poised to strike from anywhere on the field.
Fassi, young as he is, has caught the eye of some distinguished observers. “What has impressed me most about Fassi is how comfortable he is playing at a high level,” said Sharks legend Odwa Ndungane.
Cool. Calm. UnFassi, if you will.
“He reads the game very well from the back and he really backs himself. He also has a big left boot, which complements the team well, with Curwin’s right boot. He has already made the No. 15 jersey his own, just two years out of school,” Ndungane added.
Naturally, the talk then moves on to how far he can go. The question of if he can continue a fine tradition of Sharks players who have donned the No. 15 jersey for the Boks is logical. As things stand, Willie le Roux is the incumbent Springbok fullback, but World Cups and their cycles often bring about change. Players, especially those over 30, move on to greener pastures and sign lucrative deals to pad the pension.
France 2023 is not that far away and, if he continues in his current vein, Fassi will most certainly be in the conversation. He isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, having settled happily into digs life in Durban, surrounded by good people.
A star in the making
There is a strong sense that this is but the beginning for the kid from King William’s Town. “There is a lot that I still need to learn in order to pursue my dream [of playing for the Springboks]. It’s a goal that everyone wants to achieve. But in order to get there, I know that I still have to put in a lot of hard work and I also need to be consistent,” said Fassi.
Both feet remain firmly on the ground, then. He spent the time around the Rugby World Cup in Japan last year at home in the Eastern Cape, among friends and family.
“I had been looking forward to going home and watching the World Cup as a fan,” he said with a smile. He was thrilled to see the likes of Mapimpi and Am take such starring roles in the memorable run to the trophy for the Springboks.
“I was very proud of them. It’s very inspiring to see what they did, and the reaction of the whole country,” he said sincerely.
The nonchalant, no-look pass from Am to Mapimpi has been lauded the rugby world over, but Fassi has seen the sublime in Sharks training on a regular basis. And the 2019 edition may well be the last World Cup he watches from the sidelines for a while, because the languid assassin may well join his buddies in green and gold before too long.
He points out that the competition is extremely fierce. Indeed, Damian Willemse and Warrick Gelant are just two of several, tantalising options for the future at 15. But given his lessons and progress over the past year, Fassi may yet break through into the top tier – and it would surprise no one at the Shark Tank.
As the inspiration behind his nickname used to sing: Vulindlela, weMaMghobozi. Open the path MaMgobhozi.