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From baby Shark to Bok star

From barefoot box-kicks in his backyard to the cherished Bok try in his first International Test, SA Rugby’s Young Player of the Year Aphelele Fassi, talks to us about his rapid rise through the ranks.

He’s been dubbed the ‘wonder wing’,  ‘the weekend special’ and one of the ‘grooviest prospects’ to have emerged on the rugby scene over the past couple of seasons. But Aphelele Fassi is just getting started.

A schoolboy idol at Dale College in the Eastern Cape, he wasted no time to force his way into the Cell C Sharks Currie Cup mix in 2018, and through to the pinnacle of the Springbok green and gold, earning his first Premier Division winners’ medal at age 20. Armed with exceptional talent, skill and agility, the 24-year-old who has been touted as a star of the future, with two international tries in as many matches, is bringing fireworks to the field.

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“Growing up, sport was a big part of our lives. As a family, we spent a lot of time watching different sporting codes. Playing in the backyard and streets with my two brothers and our friends are childhood memories I keep close to my heart. I think I was about eight when I first discovered rugby, and up until now I have always thrived on the competitiveness and the brotherhood I find in it.”

Aphelele is a natural footballer… powerfully built, agile and deceptively quick for his 1.89m frame. Boasting a super silky skillset and rapidly improving kicking game, he has the ability to turn defence into attack, amplifying team potency and easily making him a fan-favourite among South African rugby supporters.

After turning heads at his Super Rugby debut for the Cell C Sharks in 2019, the fullback put himself into contention for a starting role in the build-up to South Africa’s test series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021. The then 23-year-old made his first appearance in green and gold against Georgia and scored a sensational try out wide (with the first touch of the ball) inside the first five minutes of the game.

“It was an incredible moment for me and my family … one that I will cherish for a long time. It’s also something I had visualised in the build-up to kick-off. The same thing happened when I played my first Currie Cup game – I visualised the try on my hotel bed before the match. In reality, I remember getting the ball and having a lot of space and backing myself into the corner. Afterwards, I honestly couldn’t believe it.”

In spite of a colourful and seemingly promising future in rugby, Aphelele’s journey has not been one without challenges. As if lockdown had not hindered the sporting world enough, Aphelele was seriously injured not so long ago during training, and was forced to undergo surgery to his shoulder.

“I was sidelined for three months before rejoining the Sharks squad for the Currie Cup and managed to regain my edge in the latter stages of the campaign, as well as in the subsequent Rainbow Cup tournament.”

To date Aphelele has made 27 appearances for the coastal team.

“We’ve played a couple of games in this year’s Currie cup and it’s looking good so far. We’ve got depth in our squad with a lot of youngsters putting their hands up, and I’m sure we’d like to continue with the same mindset for the rest of the season.”

What’s the greatest fear he’s had to overcome to get where he is today?

“Leaving King William’s Town and my roots to start a new life in Durban, was probably my biggest mental hurdle. For the rest a positive outlook (that has definitely helped overcome any setbacks due to injury), working hard on my game, staying consistent in performance and believing in myself, have been instrumental in my ability to push myself to where I am today. My fix, when I get time off, is spending time with my family as I don’t see them often and look forward to our time together. Their pride, support and encouragement have been the backbone for my success.”

Off the field Aphelele is passionate about making a difference to communities and the youth, with a keen focus on inspiring the next generation to pursue their goals and dreams. His commitment to nutrition and wellness is something else that sets him apart on the field.

‘‘It’s important as a sportsman to have a balanced and healthy lifestyle and take care of your body. I’m a big fan of natural supplements (especially when it comes to recovery) and have just partnered with The Harvest Table in an exciting collaboration facilitated by Roc Nation Sports.”

Aphelele hopes the colab will not only provide the nutrition to fuel his own athletic performance but also give him a platform to share his story and help in his plight to support several community initiatives close to his heart.

“This is a very significant partnership for me and my community. I’m proud to be working with a brand that holds the same values and vision that I do and look forward to reaching new heights with them on and off the field. Giving back to the community is an important vision and mission of mine, and I hope together we can inspire the next generation.”

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