If you would ask an avid Border rugby supporter about some of the most prominent schools in the region, there is very little chance that De Vos Malan would make it. If you narrowed that question down further and asked about the best rugby school in Qonce, the answer would be obvious, and still not De Vos Malan. But two of their Old Boy’s have started to change that narrative in the last two years and long may it continue.
When Lukhanyo Am lifted the Rugby World Cup with the Springboks in 2019, it was more than just an individual victory. It was also a victory for the underdog, a rare one at that, bearing the harshness of the South African rugby fraternity to them. The most underdog of them all, his former school De Vos Malan had finally gained bragging rights over all of the schools that would make “that list” ahead of them. Am was effectively the schools most famous old pupil.
Fast forward two years and the school had yet another feat they could brag about, especially to their neighbours who would get the obvious mention on that “other” list too, as one of their most recent Old Boy’s and shining light between the four lines, Mihlali Stamper had reached the pinnacle of university rugby, being crowned as a 2021 Varsity Cup champion with the University of Pretoria Tuks.
As Stamper stands on the podium, posing with the much-coveted trophy in his giant hands, savouring the moment, it would begin to hit him. The victory did not just come from winning the game and lifting the trophy on the day, but the real victory was adding that particular moment to an already long and difficult journey that he had to endure just to get anywhere near that podium and have a moment to ponder at all.
Born in Komani due to his mother’s working commitments, Stamper actually recognizes two homes. Peddie, his traditional and ancestral home, as well as the township of Zwelitsha in Qonce, which is home to most of his childhood memories, as he schooled in and around that region.
“I’m from a small primary school in Qonce, named King Primary. A lot of prominent people from Dale started off at that school too” he said. Stamper then opens up on how close he was to joining that particular list and fulfilling his father’s wishes in the process.
“My dad wanted me to go to Dale but in my interview at the school I messed up on purpose after realizing that none of my friends was there, but actually at De Vos Malan instead (laughs) so I didn’t get in” he recalls
Stamper would eventually be afforded the chance to attend the school he preferred, but that opportunity forthcoming was far from smooth sailing, as he recalls that his father had to fight tooth and nail to get him accepted at the school, having not initially been part of the annual 30 the school accepts from King Primary. But he admits he didn’t allow that to affect him.
“Obviously I was young at the time and didn’t know much about the system, I just wanted to be at the same school as my friends. So it never played on my mind that I had to work twice as hard because I almost didn’t get in. I was calm, and just another learner who had just arrived at a big school”.
Stamper lost out on his sport all the way up to u9, as there was no sport at King Primary. But at De Vos Malan, that was not going to happen. When he arrived in grade four the potential in his physique was already noticeable from the u11 coaches. A tough as nails character who now, isn’t afraid to put his body where it hurts but he is the first to admit that, that was not always the case.
“I was really afraid of playing rugby but the u11 coach asked me to come to training”. He said before recalling a funny story that has ensured his stay in the sport since.
“There was this guy, who really thought he was good (chuckles). I remember at u11 trials I tackled him really hard! After that tackle, I was like ‘You know what? I love this thing!’ (chuckles), I want to tackle more guys like this (laughs). So that’s what convinced me that I want to play rugby”.
He admits that he was always a big boy growing up and that immediately consigned him to the forwards, barring a stint at inside centre in u15. At home at blindside flank, no.4 lock and eighthman Stampers versatility is a dream for any coach, but what does he truly see himself as?
“I personally feel like Mihlali Stamper is a blindside flank, I also enjoy the position. I started realizing that in u/14 because I was really playing good rugby and getting player of the match awards”.
Stamper even recalls murmurs that such performances were about to grant him greener pastures.
“There was even a pursuit from Stirling High School to get me. That made me realize that I can make this a career. But early high school is when I realized I can actually go all the way” he reiterates.
Stamper had the honour of being selected to represent Border at the 2015 Academy Week, which was massive for him and De Vos Malan, as their sole representative at that level. His selection spoke volumes about the undeniable talent he possesses, to make the squad from a school that is so often overlooked. He concurs.
“They usually don’t even look at us at De Vos so making that team really meant a lot and showed me that, if I keep working as hard as I was, I would go even further. So I kept on working and believing because personally I always knew that I wanted to make it big and I still believe I’ll go further and make this a career, because of everything I have built up over the years until now. It’s more reason to believe and work harder” said Stamper.
However, in a cruel anticlimax, Stamper would not be able to take his place in the squad.
“I remember I had an injury and closer to the tournament I could just feel that I wasn’t going to be ready, so I told the coach the situation and told him that he could find a replacement. My ankle was extremely messed up, and at that time I knew nothing about physio’s” he recalls with a grimace.
After impressing enough to earn Academy week selection, Stamper admits he was expecting to progress into the Craven Week side for his matric year in 2016. However, to his surprise, it didn’t even look like he was in the Academy side itself that year. While waiting for official word to come to training, he found out two weeks to the tournament that the squad had long assembled and started training.
After seeking confirmation he was informed that he had always been on the list from the start. He would eventually join the team for the last training session, but it would prove to be too little too late for him. Then in a late twist, his misfortune turned into an opportunity even bigger than what he was initially afforded. Stamper had received a lifeline schoolboy rugby player’s dream of, a Craven Week spot.
“I was approached by the coaches of Border Country Districts who asked me to play for them. They sold it as a great opportunity and a great platform to get nationwide exposure” he said.
Speaking on the experience, he reveals what it meant to him.
“It was obviously my first Craven Week, never played in u12, u13 nor Grant Khomo u16. So it was my first time being in the setup of a top tier school week. And it being held at Kearsney, so that was also special. Playing on the A field on T.V I think it was my first time playing on TV and also seeing all these guys that I have been seeing on TV”.
Then an unfortunate situation for one of his teammates would grant Stamper with a significant moment in his fledging career. One that added to the occasion for him.
“What made it extra special was that our Border CD captain got injured in the first game and I was given the captaincy for the remaining games”. He recalled.
He admits that, although he was already a popular figure at school, his return as the sole school representative would heighten his reputation within the school corridors, and he was eventually rewarded accordingly.
“Obviously everyone was proud of me just being there. While I was there, being captain my school was extremely proud of me. I feel like I was always a hero at school (laughs) since grade 10 when I started playing 1st XV”
Stamper also credits the competition for unearthing a completely new beast in him, upon his return to the school set-up.
“I feel like Craven Week really helped my rugby coming from that level because yes, it wasn’t a walk in the park playing for CD against other province’s top players but it really helped me with my confidence because when I went back to school, yoh! I was a monster, I was a machine, I had pace, I was well built and fit, I was damaging schools.”
He then recalls a day his individual brilliance shone through to hand his school the victory.
“I remember I beat Port Rex almost singlehandedly. I was then honoured with the biggest award at school.”
Although Stamper still believes De Vos is being overlooked he is of the belief that Am and himself are responsible for what could be a mentality shift from both the schoolboys and Border selectors.
“Absolutely! I feel like I was also inspired by Ta Luks (Am) and his story because he has come a long way. His perseverance for one, I always think about him when I feel like giving up. I mean I don’t think I would cope if I had to go back to Border straight after my Bulls days, so he motivated me
“I think we’re changing the narrative, like ‘okay we come from small schools, but you could still make it if you work really hard. I mean I came from De Vos and got a contract from the Bulls straight out of school. I feel like that motivated a lot of youngsters and I would get messages from people telling me they look up to me and I have made them proud.
“Also Am winning the World Cup I’m sure it made a lot of De Vos boys say ‘someone from our school is now a World Cup winner’. I feel like for me too as a Varsity Cup winner. I think it just shows these boys that if they work hard and diligently they can also achieve. They know now, it’s possible”.
Stamper was scouted and signed by the Bulls in his grade 11 year already and he recalls the occasion he was spotted, and how the scouts had initially been on a different mission. He impressed scouts while at the Grens Festival playing against a very interesting opponent in his current life.
“It was a big game, under lights and I knew I was going up against the best number eight in Border at the time, Hanru Sirgel, who I coincidently won the Varsity Cup with (chuckles), we were both 8’s and captains and you would obviously expect a big dog fight between us and we didn’t disappoint, I really played well that game”
He recalls a conversation that backs up his claims.
“I was even chatting to a youngster from Selborne the other day who told me the news travelled in East London, that there was this guy Stamper from De Vos who gave Sirgel a hard time, I was so happy” he recalls.
He then recalls how the Bulls approached him for his services and how surreal that felt.
“ To my luck the Bulls u19 coaches were present and I didn’t know that. They were actually there to give Sirgel boots and takkies to obviously persuade him to join the Bulls. I only found out through a WhatsApp message the next week that I had impressed them and he wanted to give me a Bulls contract and a Tuks bursary”.
“I was like ‘What!?! Bulls and Tuks?! Nah this sounds too good to be true. so I asked my coach what should I do? And he said I should tell them to put everything in black and white and he sent the contract to my dad”.
But soon the honeymoon phase would be over and it would be time for Stamper to head to Pretoria to prove his worth. He then admits that the realities of having to face up against players who had years of competitive advantage over him made it an uphill battle for him to adapt.
“I won’t lie, it was a very difficult step up because I knew I was obviously amongst guys who were coming from the best schools, who have received better coaching than myself, better competition. I always knew I was a step behind and I’ll be honest, I forgot why I was even there in the first place. I was there because I had something. I wouldn’t just be there by chance. So that’s what I forgot during my time there, but yeah it was extremely tough and sometimes I would just hold back because I knew who I was going up against and didn’t want to embarrass myself”.
“It took me some time to get comfortable with the environment also like I was afraid when I got there and that resulted in me making a lot of mistakes”.
Summing up his time at the Bulls, Stamper isn’t fully satisfied because he didn’t go the distance and bemoans a serious injury that kept him out of for the majority of his first year, a crucial year in his development, especially at a cutthroat union.
“I wouldn’t say I got very far at the Bulls hey, I got injured in a warm-up game against the Lions and was ruled out for most of the season, I then only came back with only four games remaining which was two games before playoffs. I only played one game where I got my debut against the EP Kings. Then in my second year, I was training with the u21 and even there I only played one game against the Kings”.
That would then spell the time for crunch talks with regards to Stamper’s career, but luckily for him, not all was lost.
“My contract was two years and it was expiring at the end of that year and they told me they were not going to renew my contract but were offering me a joint contract between both the Bulls and Tuks”.
But with every rough patch, there are lessons to be learned and this proved to be no different for the imposing flanker.
“I definitely learnt a lot and one is: know that one thing you were scouted for, that one thing that you bring and keep on at that. Like you can’t be recruited for your good kicking game then turn around and not produce at that. Execute that, be better at it. The second thing I learnt is to not be afraid to make mistakes. When I was there and we played against each other, I would not swat in because I was afraid to make a mistake.
“Another thing, to be in a professional set up, you need to be a student of the game, it’s not like high school where you maybe make up a move yourself on the spot ( chuckles). You don’t wing things in a professional set-up, there is a playbook so I learnt that I should study the game, know my role and know exactly what I should do”.
With those lessons in the bag, it was off to Tuks then as the journey continued for Stamper and on his arrival, it felt like he never left the Bulls at all ( well…technically he didn’t), then another sharp turn hit.
“When I got to Tuks things were looking up because I still had the same coaches as I had at the Bulls so it wasn’t much of a change, but then that changed last year when we got new coaches and it was difficult for me last year because I didn’t play Varsity Cup even though I played in 2019. But for me, it’s nice being at Tuks because it is a professional set-up with all the infrastructure that they have in place and I felt like it wasn’t much of a difference from the Bulls as what they do there, we do here like even the calls and plays were the same”.
Despite being snubbed in 2020, Stamper maintains he kept a level head and didn’t go into this season looking to prove a point.
“Nah, I didn’t look at it that way, because I felt like I never want to put myself in that position of having to prove myself, because I know what I can bring. So this year was all about getting that confidence and doing what I know I can do. Last year during lockdown I worked really hard, I feel like nobody worked as hard as I did so I just wanted to prove to myself that if I do work hard things will work out. I felt like I had to because it is my fifth year in Pretoria so I felt like I just had to breakthrough”.
And the breakthrough would eventually come, as Stamper and his Tuks side were crowned Varsity Cup champions, a feeling he still struggles to put in words.
“Yoh, I really can’t describe to you how it felt, it just felt so unreal. To think I was part of a team that won the Varsity Cup, not only part, I mean I started this game, I was trusted enough to start and to win it, it meant so much and it just felt that I had taken a step closer to where I want to be or it really feels like I’ve taken myself a step closer to going where I want to be with my career. It also felt like it could be life-changing for me”.
Speaking of what he wants, “Grizzley” as Stamper is affectionately known as, has his thinking hat firmly screwed and in the midst of all the rugby euphoria, he hasn’t forgotten what he is at Tuks for. And although he is open to a move, it would have to be under suitable conditions. If it doesn’t come? That’s fine age is still on his side.
“I’ll be honest, obviously I would like to go to a bigger union, just to get some game time and test myself against the other big unions maybe a union like Pumas or Griquas just so I can play against these big sides and test myself there, but I still have two years of eligibility for the Varsity Cup but I just want to finish this degree and I’m only finishing it next year. So I would love for a move to materialize next year.
“I have to think about my studies, I have to finish next year and secure the degree then I can look after that. My plan is to maybe still play another year of Varsity Cup then after that, go overseas because I really want to go overseas so that’s the plan for now. But if I can complete my studies online next year, I can go to a union like Pumas or Griquas” he concluded.