Bulls flanker Abongile Nonkontwana has told the heartbreaking story of how the first rugby game his father watched was also his last.
The 25-year-old Eastern Cape-born player recently returned to the Bulls after a stint with the Cheetahs in the Guinness Pro14 where he tested himself against European clubs.
“My father watched the first rugby match I played. It was also the last rugby match he saw me play‚ because he died soon afterwards‚” said the bulky Bulls loose forward.
“My father is the reason I fell in love with rugby.”
Nonkontwana said it was his goal to follow in the footsteps of his father who he regarded as his “hero”.
“I was completely lost after his death. I wanted to be like him. This was the first year of my life that I was spending just with him‚ and playing rugby like him‚” said Nonkontwana.
“I struggled to come to terms with his death. I had no male role models in the house. It was just my mom and a younger sister. I suffered from depression after my dad’s death.”
Nonkontwana said moving from his mother’s home to stay with his rugby-playing father at 10 had inspired him to become the player he is today.
“I grew up with my mother in Grahamstown and with my father working in East London. I used to only see him on weekends or during the holidays‚” he said.
“When I turned 10‚ my parents decided I should move in with my dad in East London because the schools were better there. I remember being excited because I would now be able to spend more time with my dad. He was a rugby player and some of my earliest memories are of watching him training.”
His parents later applied for him to attend Selborne Primary School. Nonkontwana has never forgotten his interview with the headmaster, who “took one look at me and said ‘we’ll accept you on one condition — that you play rugby’. So that’s where I started playing rugby. Before I’d only played tennis and soccer.”
Nonkontwana said on the day of his first rugby game he crossed his fingers that bad weather would not stop the game so that he could play in front of his father.
“Then came that first rugby match for my school. I remember it was raining terribly on the morning of the match‚” he recalls.
“My father said there was no way the game would go ahead‚ but I begged him to double check for me. Sure enough‚ it went ahead. I think we won that match. It was against Queen’s Primary.
“I remember how happy my dad was as we drove home. He looked so happy that I was playing rugby and enjoying it just as much as he did. He was really happy for me. That’s the only game of rugby he saw me play. He died of pneumonia shortly afterwards.
“My rugby was still progressing well. From Selborne Primary I went to Selborne College high school for grade 8‚ 9 and 10‚” he said.
“Then‚ when I made the Border Craven Week Under-13 team and the Border Grant Khomo Week Under-16 team‚ I started to get offers from other schools and teams. I knew nothing about how offers in rugby work‚ but fortunately I had some good people around me helping me make those decisions.”