Johannesburg - Just like any rugby-mad child in South Africa, Aphiwe Dyantyi grew up in awe of the All Blacks’ haka.
The image of a roaring Tana Umaga made his blood boil. So much so that he imitated the Kiwi icon when celebrating his tries last Saturday – first he let out a roar, then he crossed his arms across his chest. Then came the breaking of imagined chains.
But as a youngster, the possibility of actually coming face to face with the tradition seemed unthinkable.
In his first months after finishing school, rugby left him with a broken heart. He looked for solace in soccer and study, and left his old dream of a life with the oval ball behind.
But it was a twist of fate that saw Dyantyi being seduced by rugby again, one that breathed life back into the hearts of disillusioned Springbok supporters when last week he helped trip up the All Blacks with two swerves of his hip and an outreached arm.
Dyantyi was one of the big heroes in the Springboks’ shock defeat of New Zealand, with two exceptional tries that knocked the wind out of their sails and a well-timed charge on Damian McKenzie that ended the match.
It is an incredible turn of events, if one takes into account that Dyantyi was still playing Varsity Cup rugby just 18 months ago.
Now he is regarded as the Bryan Habana or Breyton Paulse of his generation – a wing with the X-factor; a try machine.
“I don’t know about the word ‘machine’,” the 24-year-old said this week. “It is simply my job to score tries, and when everyone else does their job, it makes it easier for me to do mine.
“Last week, we achieved what we did because we stayed within the system and we were disciplined. Any wing that’s worth his salt can make himself count in small spaces, and I just did what was expected of me. The opportunity was there and I had to capitalise on it.”
His refusal to let himself be carried away by the hype may be a natural result of the unusual path he has taken to get here. It hasn’t always been easy.
While his potential as a sportsman was noticed early on, resulting in Dyantyi playing for Eastern Province in the Under-13 Craven Week, as he grew older, other kids started shooting past him. The result? He didn’t make the first team at his school, Dale College.
That, in the same year that his school turned 150 years old, broke him.
“I walked away from rugby,” he said. “I dreamed of playing first team and of getting a rugby scholarship to university, but when none of that happened, I decided to focus on my studies. Rugby was behind me.
“It was a major disappointment. It made me decide to ... forge a new path. I went to Johannesburg to get away from everything and everyone because most of the people from my school went to Cape Town or Port Elizabeth.”
But fate had other plans.
In Johannesburg, Dyantyi ended up running into some of his old school mates. They convinced him to play residence rugby on Wednesday nights. This, rather than first-team rugby or a scholarship, opened the door to bigger things in the sport.
“Someone saw me playing residence rugby and I was chosen for the University of Johannesburg’s [UJ’s] Under-19 team. From there, I climbed the ladder to UJ’s senior team, to Currie Cup and Super Rugby at the Lions and now the Springboks. I’m so fortunate that everything worked out for me.”
More than that, Dyantyi’s renewed passion for rugby has shot him into the stratosphere. In his Super Rugby debut in February, he butchered the Sharks with four tries. In his debut for the Boks in June, he partied behind England’s try line, did so again against Argentina and then, on Saturday, he reached his peak against the All Blacks.
It was his first try that changed the tide in favour of the Boks, when the ball quickly came through the hands to him and he danced around All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett to score.
In the second half, he increased South Africa’s total to 36 (the most by any visiting team during a test in New Zealand) by sidestepping Barrett again. And, in the 83rd minute, it was his decision to break the defensive line that caused McKenzie to drop the ball, earning South Africa its deserved win.
Seeing the Haka up close was already a childhood dream come true for the Eastern Cape-born and bred Dyantyi. And on Saturday, he got to base his unique try celebration on the Maori war cry.
With his Springbok career still in its infancy, the world is now Dyantyi’s oyster. Where it will end is impossible to predict, but this quicksilver player whose passion for rugby is immense, is looking forward to finding out.