At face value, the Eastern Cape faithful would’ve looked at the 2021 Varsity Cup with a great gratitude. This gratitude would stem from the feeling of shedding the great disappointment of having to watch the previous edition, without a particular representative that they could identify with and cheer on, on those nights under the lights that rock! This year a bit of pride has been restored to that region, with the promotion and re-inclusion of the NMU-Madibaz side to the competition.
They say, no individual is bigger than a team, but what happens when two individuals from the same region are part of the most iconic moments of that region in that particular tournament? Perhaps, then are amendments to that famous saying applicable? For this year’s tournament, both Sango Xamlashe and David Brits were named captains of UP-Tuks and Maties respectively, with Xamlashe’s appointment being a historical one on its own, as he officially becomes the Tshwane-based university’s first ever black captain. But being skippers of two of the most successful teams in the competition is not the only thing the duo have in common, so what else?
Both raised in East London, Xamlashe,22, and Brits who soon turns 24, found their ways through the gates of Selborne College, a prestigious, history and tradition filled all boys’ school in the city. Xamlashe from Stirling Primary and Brits making the more customary progression from Selborne Primary. Brits would get to don the famous Black and White stripped blazer first, as he is an age group above Xamlashe, but soon both would experience what makes the school special.
“Some of my best memories of the school are the friends that I made” said Brits. “I’m still really good friends with a lot of the guys, we had a strong bond, you know? Every single break time we used to sit with the same people and I still hang out with those people. I think the friends you make at school tend to disappear over time, but I managed to keep a good amount of those friends so it was pretty special” he continued.
Xamlashe on the other hand, was in awe of his new surroundings and savouring everything that came with being at an all boys’ school, and he was determined to maximize that experience from the very beginning. “For me it was probably just watching the first team” he recalls. “Just being a junior and the buildup for the weekend would really start around Thursday or Friday and those early Saturday mornings arriving and playing your own game, with the pinnacle obviously, watching and singing for the 1st XV, I think that is the heartbeat of the school, it was the best thing ever” he said fondly.
Brits matriculated at the school in 2015, having two years of first team rugby under his belt and captaining the side in his last year, so naturally with so many games behind him, it would be difficult for him to pin point his most memorable moment in those iconic Black and White hoops, but a moment that made him the “Hero of the day” eventually took the cake. “I remember in grade 11 there were a couple of crazy moments, I was part of a special team, playing against Monnas (Monument) was right up there, but I would say, my most memorable moment was in 2015, playing against Paarl Gim. at Cape Schools and I scored the winning try. It was a special day, we did well for our school that day”. He recalled.
Brits and Xamlashe being just one year apart meant that the duo would be able to combine for the first team for a year. Xamlashe also played two years of first team, with his journey starting in 2015 and although he would also go on to be a very inspirational captain for the school in 2016, it was his maiden year, where he partnered Brits in the midfield, that produced his best memories in the first team jersey. “It was against Dale College at Selborne, that was one I thoroughly enjoyed, as well as Cape Schools, that was also the best. But if I had to put a finger on one game, it would have to be that Dale game, I had a real thriller that day”.
Both Brits and Xamlashe had been regular fixtures in various Border rugby sides from primary all the way up to senior Craven Week level, so they would be amongst the best placed to understand what makes the region unique and why it is a constant talent conveyor belt of which other unions have consistently benefited from. Xamlashe believes the magic happens even before the players take to the rugby field, in fact.
“I think for one, it’s also the schools that are there, the three powerhouse colleges (Selborne, Dale and Queens College). They accommodate almost every background, so it’s easy for any individual that aspires to be an athlete in any sporting code to go there and usually they have good academic programs too. So the region doesn’t need much motivation because most of those schools speak for themselves”.
He then believes that because those schools already have a strong rugby influence, it’s almost inevitable that the cream of the crop will attend them, and in turn come out as a product worth polishing. “The fact that rugby is the culture of these three schools, is what drives them towards that sport. That’s why most of them even have eight teams and people even in the 6th team enjoy it so much, it’s still competitive and that culture is what makes the Border region so special and that’s why I think it produces so much talent”.
Brits on the other hand acknowledges the region’s signature style of play as one of the key attributes in that regard. As well as the intensity of competition caused by the close rivalries of the schools in that region. “I think obviously, the brand of rugby played, it’s running rugby and something I really and truly believe is that, there is a level of aggression with which the Border region carries itself, when the schools play against each other, I don’t know you just don’t see it too often in other regions, it’s extremely personal, guys are coming at you all day long, win or lose you know you’re going to have a tough day and there are bragging rights that can be carried with each and every single game. The boys are allowed to express themselves, and it’s that tenacity you witness every Saturday on derby days”.
Although Xamlashe holds his time wearing the famous region’s brown jersey fondly, he admits that for him personally it doesn’t quite rank in the same league of the memories of his games for Selborne, and he attributes that mainly to off field issues.
“To be honest it was nice, I mean it was great to be at Craven Week for two years, it was a privilege and it was amazing. But the tournament that stood out for me, was my matric year, I think it was one of my better years. My grade 11 year was definitely a learning curve for me”. He remembers. “ But I don’t have much to speak about provincial level because all the best moments were at school level, unfortunately at that time Border wasn’t the most well managed, so it became difficult to do a lot of things on the field but I really did enjoy 2016 in Kearsney, it really stood out for me”.
Brits holds all the moments representing the region dear to him, and believes, they have contributed to the player he is today. He recalls his participation at the 2013 Grant Khomo week, as his highlight in the provincial jersey. “We went three from three, we beat Free State, Boland and SWD as a curtain raiser to the main game. I think that year we ended up with six guys who made the SA U16 High Performance squad, unfortunately the training camp didn’t happen that year, but it was a special bunch of players and I was proud to be a part of that team.”
Since 2018, Border have been a force at Craven Week, claiming some pretty impressive scalps along the way, including that of the Lions and Free State, fixtures that would usually be one sided in previous years. Brits’ theory of the regions upturn in fortunes ties back to Xamlashe’s reasons for Border not doing well in the yesteryears. “Besides the players, it’s just the level of coaching.
I feel like there is just a level of competency that the coaches have suddenly brought in, I know personally, I’ve worked with Phiwe Nomlomo, ‘Coach P’, and he can really bring out the best in players and he wasn’t a selfish guy in terms of his knowledge. So I truly believe there were certain individual coaches that were able to up it to a whole new level, to allow the other schools to start competing against one another.”
He believes the new regime came in and steadied the ship and brought about a new mentality within the teams. “Those coaches learning from one another, really identifying talent and allowing those players to use their abilities and make them believe they have those abilities, and that Border isn’t a team that limits you, it won’t stop you from making SA Schools, you can achieve anything from it, if you put your mind to it. I learnt this the hard way, unfortunately (chuckles) but you can definitely stay in the region and achieve your goals without a doubt”.
Xamlashe conquers and believes if they keep following a similar route, they will keep arriving at the same destination of success. “It’s because they’re starting to get their things in order, I think the best impact was off the field things, because they affect things on the field. I think the environment is starting to improve. If I look at it, Border has always had very good teams on paper, but when it comes to Craven Week it sometimes doesn’t come off well, based on the environment that was created you know? And I think the more they facilitate better environments the better they’ll become. I don’t think we short of talent, I don’t think we short of players or coaches”.
Both Xamlashe and Brits have had the opportunity to represent their country, with Xamlashe doing so at u20 level, while Brits wore the Green and Gold at both u18 and u20 level. Brits recalls those experiences and doesn’t take them lightly at all. “Representing your country is extremely special. It’s something that as a rugby player, depending on how serious you are, really want to work towards and when you finally achieve it, it is a surreal feeling, it was an absolutely wonderful experience to be part of teams like that. I was a part of some teams that had some really special players, I mean the names speak for themselves. I was proud to be a part of those teams and will carry those memories for the rest of my life”.
For Xamlashe, the memories of his time in the SA u20 are not his fondest, however. The burly inside centre’s hopes of playing at a Junior World Championships for the Baby Boks, were dashed as he suffered a serious injury months ahead of the tournament. Even though he bemoans what that could’ve potentially deprived him off, he was still proud to have been a part of the setup, regardless.
“It was obviously great to be inducted into the SA U20 squad, but I mean, at the time I was very upset about the injury because I felt, me playing for the junior Boks would’ve been a very big stepping stone for me to go into senior rugby. I feel like, if I had just gone, I would’ve been given the opportunity to play senior rugby more prominently. But now that I didn’t it’s like, ok, now I have to take the route less travelled and I understood that, I know that most junior Boks get renewals and senior contracts and they impress from there. If you don’t get a contract then you have to play Varsity Cup and get a contract from there”.
He admits that his injury set back still crosses his mind till this day, accompanied by thoughts of what could’ve been, but chooses to keep the lessons learned. “The injury still rings in my head sometimes, you know? I mean u19 was one of my best years, why did I have to get an injury? But I guess that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes and that’s part of the game. I’m glad that it happened so if it were to happen again, I can at least say, I have been here before and know how to handle it”.
The upcoming Varsity Cup campaign will likely be the first that features two of the strongest sides in the tournament being led by two former Selbornians and Border region players. Xamlashe believes that, it is testament to the building blocks they received particularly at Selborne.
“I think it’s a true representation of what Border is capable of, and obviously that of Selborne’s good work. I think it’s underestimated how good a foundation it is, and what it creates you to be. I mean people can fight all they want and say their schools didn’t play a role, but it did. It moulded you, its rules and traditions, even if you don’t acknowledge it, indirectly it did. I mean, I give full credit to Selborne, I know they gave us a lot of opportunities to be exposed and play against the best. They could’ve easily decided they won’t compete at big tournaments. I mean I went to Wilderklawer at u16, u17 and u18”.
“I was able to go to Cape Schools and Easter Festivals, all good opportunities to showcase yourself and it’s just a good representation of what Selborne has been doing, their work comes out in the people they produce, I’m sure this has never happened before (two Border and Old Selbornians leading two of the most successful Varsity Cup sides in one year), it might be the first time and I think they can give themselves a pat on the back. Obviously not taking away David’s hard work or mine, but I think it wouldn’t have been a thing for us to work hard if we didn’t come from an environment that strived for excellence”. He said.
Brits admits he was late to the party in terms of finding out about Xamlashe’s appointment, but upon finding out, it made him emotional, and is proud to be part of such a moment. “Crazy story, I was talking to Sango he was congratulating me, and I had no idea that he was captain”. He recalled. “Five minutes later after we got off the phone I saw that he had been announced as captain. Yoh! It almost brought tears to my eyes, because what a special occasion, what a crazy story. I was captain when I was in matric at Selborne, he played centre with me, the year after I left he was captain, he was centre, we wore the same jersey”.
He also admits the rarity of such an occurrence makes it more special and worthy to savour, he also believes they’re best placed to handle whatever pressures that come with the role. “I know these sort of things don’t happen that often. It’s a special moment. And obviously the captains of arguably the two strongest teams over the years. It’s also extremely special it’s a responsibility and it’s lovely that were both trusted to take on these roles for the teams. But it’s nothing new to us, I feel like we built for that and we ready for this moment. I wish him all the best and I know he will give it everything he has in the tank for his team and obviously I’ll do the same for my team”.
He is also under no illusions as to what it means to Selborne and the Border regions. “It’s massive for Border, and Selborne. I mean we’re always representing that region, we always representing our school, no matter where you are, those colours live with you forever, so I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and I know he is too. So hopefully we can make Border and Selborne proud and we can fly those flags high the way they deserve to be, because essentially they created the platform for us to be where we are today”. Said Brits
Brits and Xamlashe have previously formed a centre partnership at school level, so Brits would be one the best placed people to tell you, about the type character the former Shimlas player is. “Sango is a genuine guy, a real top bloke. He is a hard worker, he never gives up, he’s got character, and if you know what character means, it’s what you do when no one is looking and I feel like that’s the most important thing in life, as a man. Anybody who has those qualities, I believe will be successful, whether on the field or general life and I really believe he has the recipe for success. If you want to put titles on it, he is a real mackoy captain”.
Xamlashe dives straight into the on field attributes as soon as he thinks of Brits, and one aspect pops up first, and for anybody that has watched him play, it would come as no surprise. “I think David is very physical! I’ll describe him based on our school days, not now. He is a very good example on the field, I mean he worked very hard, went the extra mile on a lot of things and that came off as he made SA schools that year. He was a real threat and good communicator as well. He was a person who was easy to play next to because you knew you could trust him to do his job, and he wouldn’t have to worry about me because I would also be on the same breadth”.
When Brits continues to describe Xamlashe’s attributes, you start to realize that the similarities run deeper than one would’ve thought, and so does the mutual respect between the two. “He is obviously a strong ball carrier, I know he has a big fend, he runs hard, he has worked on his distribution game over the years, which is obviously vital in the position he is playing, and his discipline speaks for itself on and off the field. Defensively he is also extremely solid and covers the field well. He is a work horse and I think he has a bright future ahead of him”.
The duo also played against each other on at least three occasions, in the Varsity Cup last year, while Xamlashe was at Shimlas the previous year and in an u21 tournament where Brits represented Western Province and Xamlashe, the Cheetahs. Xamlashe remembers the occasions and how enjoyable they were, but there is one pattern about them that he would be raring to change this year.
“Funny enough there weren’t any direct match ups, but it was nice to have him on the field. We lost that game (u21’s) so I haven’t had a game up on David yet. It’s nice to share a field with a former teammate and reminisce afterwards, but hopefully in the future we can be in the same backline again” he said.
For Brits it wasn’t something he was accustomed to as he has hardly had to play against former school mates since leaving, but still maintains that he was excited about it. He also points to the mutual respect as a reason there wasn’t any banter between the two. “I mean our minds were focused on the game. I don’t really indulge in the whole banter thing on the field, or trying to get into your opponents head I just don’t believe in that”. One thing he does remember though, is a direct match up that must of slipped Xamlashe’s mind. “I will say this though, he did have a run at me (chuckles) but no he is a tough guy so I’m sure we will meet each other on the field again”. Said Brits.
Xamlashe will earn his historic moment on the opening evening of the tournament as Tuks take on Wits at 19h00. But he admits that he has never really woken up with outright ambitions of being a captain, but it’s certainly not in his nature to shy away from a duty when called upon. “I think that I have natural leadership traits that people see in me, I never really think that I do but I must accept the trend that people see something, I guess it happens often that people see things in you that you might not see in yourself”.
“So captaincy was not my goal, but a real man doesn’t shy away from that responsibility when offered that job he steps up. That was basically me, I’m not scared to face the music and I’m willing to take the responsibility but it’s a huge honour”. He also recognizes the significance of what he represents in this capacity. “I think as the first black captain, I bring hope to a lot of kids who maybe feel like this is not the sport we welcomed to. I think I can potentially open a lot of hearts to the sport and show them that this really is possible, there are just certain stepping stones you have to go through to get there, it’s not easy. It’s a privilege because I have become a part of a long list of legends that have captained Tuks, with some that have gone on to become Springboks”.
Xamlashe has already tasted silverware with the Blue Bulls u21 side in 2019, but what would it mean to him to win the Varsity Cup as skipper? “It would be the icing on the cake, because it’s something we’ve been working for as a team for almost 20 weeks now, preparing for one tournament and now it’s happening. The nerves are here, but I’ve been here before so that helps me calm down, but I’m excited”. Xamlashe concluded.
You would be forgiven for thinking Xamlashe and Brits are the same person with all the attributes they share, but we have a slight tie breaker. Unlike Xamlashe, Brits had actively been working towards his captaincy appointment. In fact, he was due to captain his side, in the last fixture in the curtailed campaign last year. Now he finally gets his chance and he understands full well, the expectations that come with the role.
“I know it’s a cliché but I don’t think there are better words to describe it than a privilege and an honour, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity, I feel blessed and extremely excited for it. I understand there is a lot of responsibility and challenges that come with it, obviously the team has been extremely successful over the years”.
“There is a rich tradition that gets carried here. Not just in terms of character building but also just the level of success, that pride and rich tradition that gets carried with that jersey. I have been working towards this since 2019 so to finally have it here in the moment feels very special”.
He admits he refuses to think too far ahead to winning the trophy and would rather take things game by game. But he realizes that when you wear the Maties jersey, it automatically becomes and objective. “Obviously winning the trophy feels like an expectation for this side. That level of responsibility and challenge I was talking about? Well it’s here now, you have to live up to it, and you’ve got to man up to it and be in the moment to take the opportunity. I’ll be doing everything in my power to make sure this Maties side continues this successful run we’ve had and hopefully we can make our supporters and everyone else that’s worn the jersey proud”. Concluded Brits.
The duo certainly share a lot of things, city of residence, high school, region, position, jersey number, international representation, leadership skills and playing attributes. They also share the responsibility of captaining two of the strongest teams in the competition. But at the end of the day, there is one thing they can’t share, and that’s the trophy. So which Boytjie are you backing? Well luckily for the Border region neutral, they won’t have to choose.