The morning of 15 March in Christchurch, New Zealand, began like any other day for former Blitzboks captain Mpho Mbiyozo. He dropped his kids off at school and went on to a morning rugby coaching session.
By day’s end, however, Mbiyozo was anxiously scurrying his sons into a nearby friend’s house while a gunman killed 51 people at the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre. The attack also resulted in 39 people being injured in the city centre where the gunman shot at “anything that’s brown”. Brenton Tarrant, the main suspect, pleaded not guilty and his trial has been scheduled for May next year.
The events that unfolded that day were like nothing Mbiyozo could ever have imagined when he took over the coaching reins at Belfast Rugby Club in Christchurch earlier this year.
“My kids go to school not far from where we stay and I went to work as per normal,” he said. “The boys [four-year-old Vukile and two-year-old Alakhe] are done at 12.30pm and my daughter [six-year-old Khaya] is done at 3pm every day.
“I picked the boys up first, came home and hung around with them, and then I went to pick up my daughter. When I got there, I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but I could hear the sound of ambulances and helicopters all around.
“There was a shutdown at the school. I asked what a ‘shutdown’ meant and they said the kids can’t leave the school because it’s a whole government shutdown. Someone then told me that there’d been a terrorist attack in town and someone shot up a mosque and stuff like that.
“The guy who was telling me the story started crying and I was slightly confused. But you could tell from his tears something has happened that shouldn’t be happening.”
‘Get out of there!’
“There’s a play area for kids outside the school, so me and the boys decided to hang out at that playground until the whole thing died down. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the magnitude of the whole thing, how bad it really was.
“My wife [Aimee-Noel Mbiyozo] called and asked where I was, and I told her I was outside the school waiting for the shutdown to end. She said to me, ‘Get out of there! Go to Brad Mooar’s house.’ Brad’s house was not far, it was walking distance from the school.
“This guy was apparently travelling around killing people and shooting anything that’s brown. So, I went to Brad Mooar’s house and left my daughter at the school. Then I was in a bit of a haze, you know that hazy feeling?”
Life, so precious and fragile, can be snatched from you at any moment. The fears of a father, the racing pulse, the wonder of what’s to come and the uncertainty of tomorrow. All sorts of emotions were flooding through Mbiyozo at the time, while he was thousands of kilometres from home.
It was an incident that made him look at the world differently and take stock of his blessings, not only on the rugby field but off it, too.
“It was very unsettling and unnerving,” he recalled. “I was thinking, what happens if this guy somehow ends up in our area and and and… A whole lot of stories start running through your head. Fortunately, it never got to that stage where he came to my daughter’s school or any other school for that matter.
“The whole thing was so tragic and so unnecessary. I had the misfortune of seeing the video, which to this day keeps me awake. Every now and then you wake up in a pool of sweat thinking, ‘Holy shit, how could this guy be so evil?’”
‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’
“The reason I couldn’t turn the video off was because I was just numb at the sight of it. Not many things in the world faze me, but I was just numb. I could see him driving around, I’m assuming to the next mosque, and he starts shooting at anything that’s brown along the way, through the windscreen and the windows. You just hear, ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’,” said Mbiyozo.
“I just can’t fathom the evil and hate you have in your heart to be able to do such a thing at a place of worship. It was tough.
“When things are far away from you, they don’t have that kind of impact. But when they are close to you, that’s when you realise that people up in the Middle East and Palestine experience this every single day. We don’t in South Africa.
“The scary thing is that two days before, my kids, my wife and my father-in-law were at a park near the first mosque. That’s when it hit me that I’ve got brown kids and, had it been that day, it could have been us. Thank God that didn’t happen.”
A placard cushioned between the cards and flowers from mourners read: “This Is Not New Zealand”. Indeed it wasn’t. But the response was everything New Zealand: toughness, grit, compassion and courage.
In the aftermath, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a burqa as a symbol of unity against hate. An egg was cracked on the head of right-wing Australian senator Fraser Anning, who made appalling comments after the attack. The Haka was performed by students, protesters, kids and mourners. New Zealand did what New Zealand does, they fought back against adversity in the same way they rebuilt Christchurch after the 2011 earthquakes.
“What’s the world coming to?” Mbiyozo asked. “You just cannot comprehend that someone could do that. When I say I wake up sweating at night sometimes, it’s because I see those faces and those heads exploding. You cannot comprehend that someone could do that, in a place like that, all because of some idiotic beliefs that they are superior to someone else.
“But above all that, the response from people in New Zealand, right to the average guy on the street, was just unbelievable, how they got together and just absolutely rallied to work through this together.
“As you’ve seen in the news, even through a tragedy like this, the response was heartwarming and it gives you hope in humanity. It’s commendable how the city and the country got together and embraced each other.”
“Subsequently, there was a law that outlawed semiautomatic rifles, while everyone else in the world, especially in the US, is fighting for their right to bear arms. Here, they say you don’t need an assault rifle to protect yourself because it’s dangerous.”
The 36-year-old is one of the most affable gentlemen of the game. Not a soul has a single bad thing to say about him. In many ways, including how he got into one of the finest rugby schools in the country, Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, he has charmed his way through life.
“The first time my mother bought me a pair of rugby boots, she actually cried,” he said. “She thought I was going to break my neck and be paralysed. She would have rather I played soccer. A mate of mine from Lusikisiki, Loyiso Mfazwe, was at Dale College [in King William’s Town] and I applied there because I remember that I wanted to make rugby a career from standard six.
“But Dale responded with a rejection letter, saying the school was full. Someone mentioned Grey and I thought, okay, I’ll try them. I called the public phone directory number and asked the number for Grey. I told them my name, that I wanted to study there, and they put me through to their guidance counsellor, a guy called Mr Pringle. He sent me forms, which I filled in and faxed back using my mother’s work fax number.
“I got accepted, just like that. But when we got the information pack with the fees, we thought, ‘Oh shit, what do I do?’ My mom told me she couldn’t afford them. The blazer and tie alone meant we were down a thousand bucks.
“I got the idea to go and speak to the principal, Mr Simpson, and told him I can’t afford to be here but I want to be here. He looked at me and started laughing and asked me how I got accepted in the first place. He said, ‘We’ll make a plan’, and I ended up getting a scholarship, just because I asked. That changed the course of my life. It’s the reason I’m here.”
Changing the attitude towards Sevens
Mbiyozo’s route to Christchurch was not a straight line either. He is a boy from Lusikisiki who grew up playing football, but found out he was too rotund and rough to play the beautiful game. Rugby found him, in a way, and cupid’s arrow went to work.
As an openside flanker, he had the twin gifts of skill and toughness that served him well at the breakdown. His glory years, however, were spent with Paul Treu’s South African Sevens team, which he led alongside co-captain Mzwandile Stick, to the country’s first World Sevens Series title in 2009.
That title changed the way South Africans viewed Sevens rugby. It became mainstream and a genuine career option for those that followed and flourished, such as Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Werner Kok and the rest of the 2017 and 2018 world champions.
After hanging up his boots in 2013 following a stalled 15-man career at the Southern Kings, Mbiyozo jumped at the chance to pick up the whistle when Western Province coach Jerome Paarwater asked him to assist at Newlands. And, being the studious fellow he is, he knew coaching demanded more than just knowledge of the game, so he accumulated all three of his International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) coaching badges.
‘Never part of the plan’
He was coaching at the Boland Academy when the call came to cross the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t planned, but could be the defining move of his young coaching career.
“I can’t say I ever imagined I would end up in Christchurch,” he said. “I came here last year on a personal development trip as a coach around June, for a month. My mate Brad Mooar, who is one of the Crusaders assistants, linked me up with them [Crusaders] and I got to sit down in their meetings and watch how they operate and how they do things.
“That was a learning curve. I walked around some schools, spoke to school coaches and club coaches and had some very good conversations with people around here, purely on rugby.
“I found that they have a willingness to share information. I was like, wow. My whole family was with me and I remember sitting on the plane going home and I said to my wife, I’ve got to come back here. I don’t know how, but I’ve definitely got to come back.
“Two months later, there was a coaching job advertised here [at Belfast Rugby Club]. I just put my name in for shits and giggles and the guy who was doing interviews was a guy I’d met in one of the club sessions, and we had had a great conversation. Fast forward a year later and we’re now settled here.
“It was never part of the plan, but I just had a good hunch about it and I figured it would be a good place to learn. I played all my rugby at home and I wanted to come out of my comfort zone and all the coaching I’d done had been at home. I wanted something different.
“Interestingly enough, there was an option at hand at home to take. It was very well considered, but we took this one on the basis that I wanted to find out more about myself as a person and also as a coach.
“Now I’ve got access to the best coaches in Super Rugby and they allow me to come in and sit and listen, learn and ask questions. They share some information that they probably don’t share with many people around the world.
“I can only grow.”