South African rugby often seems to want to hold on to a bygone era, an ugly past with fleeting moments of glory. But it also wants to move with the times by being a game for everyone.
Letting go of the past and living in hope of attaining a dream is something all too familiar for Springbok and Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka. The 29-year-old is a shining example of what South African rugby can achieve if it dares to dream.
Gqoboka has known pain and anguish. As difficult as it can be to revisit the past, Gqoboka often looks back on his journey from rags to riches and belief in a seemingly impossible dream as a reminder for why it is important to maintain a balanced life as a Springbok, husband, father, son, brother and inspiration to the future Boks.
His long-awaited international debut this year was a fairy-tale moment. He came on as a substitute for his long-time hero, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, and earned a penalty for the team in his first scrum.
Having grown up in Mount Frere in rural Eastern Cape, Gqoboka’s only desire was to be the best footballer in his school and village. His fleeting moments of joy would come after decimating would-be pretenders to his throne as the sprint king in the 100m.
Even when dreaming of better days in the confines of his parents’ one-bedroom home, which was shared with his siblings, Gqoboka’s thoughts only wandered as far as the coastal city of Durban and getting a job to alleviate the poverty in which he and his family lived.
A tough road
Gqoboka stumbled on rugby at the age of 19, when a friend asked him to tag along to training at Durban Collegians rugby club. Another friend organised him a trial at Eastern Province in 2011.
Having started out as an eighthman, he was quickly moved to prop in Port Elizabeth. Under the mentorship of former Springbok prop Robbi Kempson, the soft-spoken Gqoboka quickly climbed the ranks and played more than 50 matches for the EP Kings.
But adversity would strike and Gqoboka found himself reliving the past when the EP Kings failed to pay salaries for a few months in 2015. In the midst of this strife, though, the Bulls came knocking for the player who had shown enough promise in his formative years to earn a call-up to Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok squad in 2014.
His arrival in the capital signalled a new lease of life. Gqoboka earned himself another call-up to the national team, this time under Allister Coetzee, which culminated in two appearances for the South African A side after some strong performances for the Bulls in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. Only a ligament tear stunted his growth.
Gqoboka got his groove back after earning a starting berth alongside fellow Springboks Schalk Brits at hooker and Trevor Nyakane, who had made way at loosehead prop to become a formidable tighthead in Super Rugby.
Gqoboka then put in performances that incumbent Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus couldn’t ignore, leading to a memorable Test debut against the Wallabies in front of his wife, two kids and the rest of his family.
With plenty of hard work and discipline, Gqoboka was always going to live out his dream of becoming a Springbok. He is a reminder of the bottomless pool of rugby talent in the country, just waiting for the chance to make something of their lives and take South Africa back to the top of the game.
“It’s been a long journey. I wouldn’t trade the lessons and building of character that took place and that waiting period. I think it’s the perfect time that it happened now and I’m really happy,” Gqoboka said after his Springbok debut, in which he helped the team to a convincing 35-17 win against Australia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
“It was special. The atmosphere was amazing as always at Ellis Park. It was a great honour to represent my country and I’m grateful for the opportunity, and it is even better when we get a win.
“I never wavered in my faith. I knew that I needed to do my part, which is working hard, and let the Lord do his part, which is opening doors, and it happened. I definitely need to work harder, but one has to celebrate special moments like these.
“I’m so grateful for my family because they’ve carried me in prayer as well and they have always supported me, even when I was injured they always encouraged me. They were there for me and I will go back and work harder.”
Beyond the World Cup
Competition is rife for a place in the Rugby World Cup squad to be announced on Monday 26 August. Gqoboka is not obsessing about whether or not he will be on the plane to Japan in September. Instead, he is thinking about what he can learn and improve to be a better rugby player and an example to the many kids growing up in adversity.
In reality, the chances of him going to Japan are slim after Erasmus released him from the Bok camp. He walked straight into the Bulls XV, scored a try but still ended on the losing side in an entertaining 40-48 duel with the Sharks on Saturday at Loftus Versfeld.
“Obviously, I would love to go to the World Cup and represent my country. But it is not up to me. It is all up to the coach and God, and I will accept whatever comes my way,” Gqoboka said.
“For me, what is important is that I don’t look back but continue to learn and improve as a rugby player and a person. There is a reason why God put me here and why I went through the struggles I did before.
“Yes, I want to continue living my dream by playing for the Springboks. But I also have a duty to inspire the next generation and show people the power of God through what He has done for me,” he said. Popularly known as G-Bok, Gqoboka is the founder of the Lizo Gqoboka Foundation, which creates study and work opportunities for people from underprivileged backgrounds.
While Gqoboka clearly has an appetite for wanting to help change the lives of others, he remains grounded in his approach towards the game of rugby. Much of his humility stems from the firm teachings of his parents and a strong belief in his faith, but the greater part of his success on the field has been religiously following in the footsteps of Mtawarira.
Learning from his hero
Just like Beast, Gqoboka is a rethreaded loose forward turned prop and even though they have both had to learn the finer art of scrumming, it is their sheer determination with ball in hand and unrelenting toil in defence and attending the rucks that has made them irrepressible and irreplaceable in their franchise teams and now the Springboks.
“He [Mtawarira] is a hard worker, very professional and a very disciplined person, and I’ve learnt that from him. More than anything the main thing remains the main thing and I’ve learnt that from him in the weeks I’ve spent with him. We have a healthy competition upfront and there is quality amongst all the props and it makes you work harder. Looking at him, he never loses hunger. He has over a hundred caps and hasn’t lost the hunger, so I’ve learnt that from him.”
As the game of rugby in South Africa struggles to untangle itself from its past, there is maybe a valuable lesson to learn from those like Gqoboka who will take the game into the future. And while he doesn’t want to be held back by the past, it is the triumphs over adversity in his past that have seen him begin to live out his dream of becoming a Springbok.
But this is just the start of his dream.
“Competition amongst the frontrowers is very healthy and we have quality players in that area that push one to work even harder and learn as much as possible. What is important is for one to do their job and leave the rest in the hands of the coach.”
But more importantly, it is a dream that must inspire the next crop of black Springboks and put to rest that which has held South African rugby back from being the most feared and revered team in the world.
“There is still a lot of work ahead and many lessons to learn. But for now I’m very happy with my performances and where my life is. More than just playing rugby, being a Springbok and wanting to go to the World Cup. I believe that the God who was with me in the darkness is using me to inspire others and bring light to their lives.”