By Chris Totobela
During Heritage Month, we will look at local sporting heroes who have contributed to developing local sports. This week we feature Makhanda’s first Black player from a previously marginalised school to make the Eastern Province rugby team.
The lightning-fast Michael Nyenge fell in love with the game after watching a few games at the Oval rugby field. He started his career with the Lilly White juniors while he was still at Archie Mbolekwa Primary School. It was here that he was taught rugby basics under the guidance of his former teacher, Mr Nkayi. He left Makhanda for Peddie where he played for the Ndlambe Primary School team. In 1995, he returned home and played for Nombulelo Secondary School, where rugby was not that big but he outshone the rest.
Nyenge then joined Eastern Rugby Club under his former coach and mentor, Phumzile Adam, who took him to the EP trials held at the Oval rugby field in September of that year. Nyenge remembers this day well. “I was scared because I came from a school that was not traditionally a rugby school, but Mr Adam kept on reminding me how good I was,” Nyenge told Grocott’s Mail.
He made the cut for the final selection trials in Gqeberha and his former teachers at Nombulelo Secondary School, Mr Ngcethe and the late Mr Mtywaku, drove him to Gqeberha where he made the EP Under-16 team. Not only did Nyenge make the team, but he made history as the first Black player from a previously disadvantaged school to make the Eastern Province team at any level.
“I could not believe it when my name was read out. This was a great year for me as the Springboks were crowned world champions and I got selected to represent my province in the same year,” he said. Nyenge played in all the EP games at the Ellis Park stadium in Gauteng where they lost the first game against the then-Northern Transvaal, played to a draw against the then-Transvaal, and finished off with a victory against South Western districts.
He returned to his childhood team, Lilly White, later in his career before finishing off his outstanding career at Old Collegians where he hung up his boots. He has since never been involved in any rugby activity. “It is difficult for me to plough back my skills to the youngsters as there are too many politics in the sport,” Nyenge said.
Nyenge also believes that the standard of rugby in Makhanda has dropped compared to his playing days. “Rugby was big and we had the Fingo and Tantyi Derbies that we were always looking forward to. Winter Rose and Eastern in the Fingo Derby and Lilly White and Old Collegians in the Tantyi Derby but today we don’t see those derbies anymore” said Nyenge.
His favourite player and role model is former Springboks winger, the late Chester Williams. He believes that the only thing that will revive rugby in Makhanda is to start at grassroots level, make sure all the junior schools play rugby and revive old teams like Winter Rose, Eastern, Rainbow, and Universals. Lastly, Nyenge says the right people must always lead our sport, and coaches and administrators must be trained.
“I will always cherish the honour of being the first Black player in Makhanda to make the EP team,” said Nyenge.