Duane Heath

Farewell to the Viking

2004-09-24 07:58

It all ended last Saturday, in a damp room smelling of dirt and Deep Heat.

Seven years of his life he spent here, with ears taped tight and shoulders sandwiched between team-mates and white walls echoing the metal clatter of boot studs and the steeling roar of pre-match rituals.

It all came flooding back to him just now, as he looked out the misty window at a sky black and bursting with a load of late winter wetness.

Seven years spent running around that muddy patch out there, ten thousand kilometres from home; over two hundred matches squeezed into a career he called time on again and again, only for the hunger to eat away at him; the hunger for just one more game, one more adventure.

The rain drained from the heavens as he pulled over his head the hooped jersey immortalised by HO de Villiers, Ian McCallum, Nick Mallett and most recently Brent Russell, the jersey he coveted when he first arrived here, dreamed of wearing, and which now felt like a second skin.

It was the phone call, out of the blue, that changed everything. It went something like this: "You come? Italy? Play rugby?"

And just like that Simon Lukell's days as an Ikey came to an end.

Rollercoaster

As you read this he's packing his bags for his latest adventure; Verona in northern Italy the latest stop on a roller-coaster of a rugby journey that's taken him around the globe.

In his time at UCT, the 1.98m, 115kg jolly giant became one of the most capped and respected Ikeys in the club's history.

His is an amazing success story given that the self-confessed couch potato, who failed PE in high school, picked up a ball for the first time only after he left school - and that he hails from a country more renowned for producing pop stars than for turning out high-quality rugby players.

But this is not just a story about Simon Lukell; it's also a tribute to the power of this wonderful game to open doors, to build bridges across continents and cultures, and create fairytales.

I'll never forget what Simon told me that first day we met, three years ago now.

"The hardest thing was giving up the known and taking a big step into the unknown," he said. "All I can say is that since I started choosing the path rugby has laid out for me, my life has worked out perfectly."

Simon was referring to a day back in 1996 when he decided he no longer wanted to be an officer in the Swedish army.

Just like that, he and his big-haired, Mexican-born scrum partner in crime, Richard Eklund, dropped everything and headed for Cascais in Portugal, where they met up with current UCT 1st XV coach John Dobson.

Dobson liked what he saw, perhaps saw the flames in those Viking eyes, and invited Simon back to Cape Town.

"I didn't know my potential and I wanted to find out how far I could go," he explained. "The huge thing for me was to have that challenge, at every practice and in every match, of being surrounded by better players and seeing if I could improve.

"When I left Sweden and came to Cape Town, I didn't think of myself as anything special at all, but what I have now is the confidence that I can play as well as anyone."

Loyalty

In his years at UCT, Simon became known as a no-nonsense lock forward who provided a tough edge to the students' traditionally lightweight pack - but it was his loyalty and that trademark laugh that will be missed in the corridors at Groote Schuur.

The 32-year-old's determination to bounce back from a number of serious injuries also resulted in him fulfilling an impossible dream of playing Test rugby again this year, six years after earning his first and only cap.

And now, three years after telling me he was ready to retire, two years after saying this was the end, a year after nearly packing it all in because of a bad back, a rejuvenated Simon Lukell is off on his next adventure: a six-month stint at Valpolicella in the Italian league.

The club has even agreed to fly his fianceé, Nicky, out as well, and pay for their trip back to South Africa in January for the couple's wedding.

"My first game is next Sunday already," Simon told me this week. "I'm looking forward to it because not only will I be playing, I'll also be doing some coaching as well."

The Italians have also given Simon time off in October for when Sweden play in vital World Cup qualifiers, and he plans to return to the country of his birth at the end of May, to complete a circle in the student city of Uppsala, where the adventure began all those years ago.

Final curtain

Against Cambridge University last weekend, in his final match for the Tigers, Simon Lukell brought the curtain down on an era in Ikeys rugby.

For a man without flash or frills, it was perhaps fitting that there was no blaze of glory, no length-of-the-field gallop for greatness with which to close the chapter.

Simon Lukell, raised in a northern land of ice and snow, rode into the sunset at the bottom of Africa the same way he arrived: with a laugh.

Send Duane your views on this column.

  • Duane Heath is a freelance sportswriter who has written about the game for News24, Rugby World, IRB World of Rugby and the Sunday Times.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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