By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi has been somewhat overshadowed by Cheslin Kolbe at the World Cup so far but with his fellow winger ruled out of the semi-final against Wales, the prolific finisher will have his chance to hog the limelight on Sunday.
Mapimpi is an unlikely Springbok in many ways, having grown up in grinding poverty in a rural area without a big rugby tradition and getting his first call-up to the South Africa squad at a relatively advanced age.
The 29-year-old has certainly made the most of his opportunity, scoring 13 tries in 12 tests since making his debut against Wales in the United States last year, including five so far in Japan.
Springboks backs coach Mzwandile Stick describes him as “one of the best finishers in the game” and said his aptitude under the high ball in particular was remarkable given his background.
“He comes from a rural area in the Eastern Cape. As a youngster, he would spend 10 kilometres a day walking to school,” Stick told reporters on Friday.
“The coaches and players always laugh when I tell this story of how, in the rural areas, if you kick a rugby ball, the coach will take you off the field.
“You are not allowed (to kick). You are supposed to run and catch, that’s all. So, he was never exposed to a game where there was kicking and aerial skills and stuff.”
Powerful and lightning quick, Mapimpi crossed the whitewash twice in the quarter-final win over the tournament hosts last weekend to move to the top of the try-scoring standings along with Josh Adams of Wales and Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima.
Stick said he hoped the Springboks would give Mapimpi more opportunities to show off his prodigious finishing skills against Wales and illustrate once again the improvements he has made as a player over the last few years.
“He was always very fit, very dedicated to what he wanted to achieve,” Stick said.
“When we invited him to our camp last year, we knew what we were dealing with, and just wanted to make sure that we give him the best possible support, and improve his game.
“He has developed as a player. It’s a nice story to tell to youngsters, that irrespective of your background, if you really work hard, and your opportunity comes, you need to be ready.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by David Clarke)