Rugby pioneer placed among legends

Mzwandile “Kaiser” Sikunana and Norman Mbiko with some of the accolades given to Mbiko over the years.

South African rugby legend Norman “Nhonho” Mbiko, 75, from Nyanga will later this week be awarded the Andrew Mlangeni award in rugby. The award is aimed at recognising the sacrifices made by SA sports legends, during the dark days of apartheid.

And, Mbiko is a worthy recipient. An excellent sportsman and administrator in his day, he didn’t have a chance to represent a united Springbok team but certainly left his mark at club, provincial, national and international level.

He captained the Leopards, which was the blacks-only South African rugby team, during those days. When Athlone News visited his home, the illustrious player displayed wit and humour as sharp as his ball-handling skills used to be, even faking a dummy pass when having his picture taken.

When asked if it was okay for him to travel to go and collect his award, his answer cut directly to the point. “I don’t see why not,” he said.

The accolades that adorn the walls in his home bear testimony to the respect and admiration he commands from people who knew him as a teammate and opponent.

He says he started playing in 1962, while at Langa High School and earned a spot on the SA black school team following a national tournament in Port Elizabeth.

A year later, in 1964, he made his debut for the senior Western Province Board and helped the side to victory in 1965.

He wrote his name in SA rugby history when he became a black Springbok in 1966 and would eventually captain the side in 1968.

He was also part of the squad that would eventually become the first SA black team to face a foreign touring side, when they faced England in 1972. He also played against Italy in 1973 and France in 1975 and against the all-conquering British Lions during their 1974 tour. The Lions, which pretty much destroyed everyone they met on the field that year, beat them 56-1. Although the team lost, Mbiko made sure he did not come away empty-handed as he slotted home two penalties.

In an interview with SABC Sport, earlier this year, SA Rugby senior manager, Khaya Mayedwa, paid tribute to Mbiko and his peers, who paved the way for future generations.

“We are heavily indebted to players like Norman. The magnitude of the work they have done in their time, cannot be quantified. We stand upon the shoulders of these heroes, for what they have done. And Norman, considering his past at SA Rugby, from captain to coach, is just enormous and an inspiration to us,” he said.

Mbiko’s contribution to the development of the game is wellknown and he also served the game with distinction, in post-apartheid South Africa. During South Africa’s victorious 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign, for instance, he was there.

His role was that of a technical advisor to that team’s manager, Morné du Plessis.

Mbiko’s son Mark, who played and still coaches rugby, described his father as a strict disciplinarian who loves the game.

“He has achieved a lot but, despite that, he doesn’t take things for granted. As his son, I learnt early on that we as his biological children were not his only sons. We had a lot of brothers from around the country and beyond. Our home was a home to many rugby players; they became our family.

“He didn’t just play rugby at grassroots level, he played it professionally too, event captaining the national team. He was that kind of a guy who would be on the field, whether it’s raining or not, and as for my own coaching path, he taught me a lot,” said Mark.

Mbiko’s brother-in-law, former protégé and a legend in his own right, Mzwandile “Kaizer” Sikhunana, 62, agrees. “Bhut’ Nhonho, advised the Springbok technical team as to how to beat the All Blacks in that 1995 final.”

Sikhunana says he learnt most of what he knows about rugby from Mbiko.

“I was born and raised in Nyanga East, and started off as a soccer player in the 1970s. I played for Hilites FC, which was one of the strongest sides at the time. The year was 1972 and I was 14 years old when I joined the side.

“This was a team, under our then manager, Jerry Nhlapo, who had a great eye when it came to spotting talent. That team were well ahead of its time because, long before video analysis became popular, we were already doing it.

“We would watch football tapes, so that each player on the field could understand what was expected of someone in their position,” he said.

As a multi-talented sports player, he also played rugby. “As soon as the soccer season ended, we would turn our attention to rugby.

“Norman Mbiko, whom I call Bhut’ Nhonho, introduced me to rugby. He was playing for Flying Eagles but I started out at Blue Birds. Our teams were rivals, and to make things even more interesting, was that we were both playing scrum half. So, I’ve learnt a lot from him,” he said.

With the mentorship of Mbiko, Sikhunana went on to earn his Western Province colours in 1981.

“I played under Thompson Maxhala, who was in the same Leopards team that was captained by Mbiko. At that time I used to even help Flying Eagles when they were playing in Gugulethu and in 1982, while they were in PE, they didn’t have a fly half. Mr Mbiko realised I was among the fans. He called me to assist. That’s how he believed in my abilities,” he said.