Ahead of his 100th Bulls game, Akona Ndungane is counting the blessings he's had at South Africa's most successful franchise.
On the eve of his 100th appearance for the Bulls, Akona Ndungane cannot help but count the blessings he has received since he joined South Africa's most successful Super Rugby franchise.
The 33-year-old wing once saw his career flash before his eyes when he broke his leg in a Currie Cup match against Griquas and, just when he thought he was on his way back, he broke the same leg again.
The second time was during training and as he will have you know – recovering from that second setback tested his character in ways he never thought possible.
When you watch Mthatha's favourite son – apologies to his twin brother, Sharks flyer Odwa – playing in a competition where the mental and physical demands are as high as they are, it is incredible to think that there was a time when he was told his career was over.
But he failed to give in, for it was made painstakingly clear when he started at the Bulls in 2005 that surrendering is not an option.
As for the ability to overcome adversity and instead rising to the challenge… well Ndungane is living proof that those are the qualities the talent scouts at Loftus Versfeld seek when recruiting future stars.
“The one thing I've learnt being part of this family is that we never give up,” he told Planetrugby.com
“Even when the odds are against us, we always keep fighting and that is why we have been very successful.”
Ndungane believes honesty is equally important and when asked to reflect on the three matches his team has played this year, he took responsibility for the frustration Bulls supporters endured in their first two fixtures.
“We had a very good off-season and I thought that we had everything in place to do very well,” added the Bulls vice-captain.
I still believe what we did in preparation will definitely benefit us, but unfortunately we didn't have the start that we wanted.
“What I can tell those frustrated fans is that there is a fight amoungst the players, we are not happy with what happened and we will continue to push hard to make those supporters who were disappointed with the way we started, proud once more.”
While losing skipper Pierre Spies and flanker Arno Botha can be seen as devastating setbacks, Ndungane highlighted that injuries are part of the game.
“It is not like we started playing Super Rugby this year so we have to make do with what we have…it (injuries) is part of the game and in our squad it simply means another player will get an opportunity to put their hand-up and contribute to our cause,” he explained.
Ndungane has two Super Rugby trophies to his name (it would have been three if not for injury), a bunch of Currie Cup winner's medals and let's not forget that he was part of the 2007 Springbok World Cup squad that returned from France with the most sought after trophy in the game.
For the man who sports dreadlocks which can be identified from a mile, it all started at Loftus Versfeld – a place which has become as important to this custodian of Xhosa rugby as it is for the thousands of Afrikaners who flock to the ground week-by-week to see him in action.
“I've had great times here, and I've had sad moments as well,” Ndungane said.
Understandably one of the sadder moments has to do with the devastating leg-breaks he experienced.
“I remember playing my 50th cap and that was against the Reds,” he said.
“I can't remember what year that was but after I broke my leg I never thought that I would be running out for my 100th game this weekend.”
“When I broke my leg the second time, I thought maybe this is the end of my career, but that's life – it is always full of surprises and you just have to life for the day and life it to the fullest.”
And if breaking a leg, wasn't hard enough, the most experienced man in the Bulls back-line also had to deal with law changes in the game that has changed the way the faster men out wide have to prepare for each contest.
“The game has evolved tremendously over the years as they continue to try make it more interesting and exciting,” said Ndungane.
“Most of the law changes were been made to encourage faster play and I think for a wing our duties on the field have changed tremendously.
“While there are times that you have to be a strike runner, you also have to ensure that your centres have a few more options and this is where superior fitness comes into play.
“Back in the day it used to be slow and players weren't as smart as they are now. Breaking defences down is becoming more difficult every year and this is encouraging players to learn how to play the situation.
Ndungane is rated as one of the best players under the high ball and when considering his team's playing pattern – it makes him one of their most valued assets on the field.
Asked about his career highlights, Ndungane said: “For starters, being part of that Super Rugby team that won the tournament in 2007 after the try they scored in the dying moments and we thought it is game over. I just love how we came back and stole it.
“Then, being selected for the Springboks is about as good as it gets and I have to be honest, if it wasn't for the Bulls I would probably not have reached that goal.”
Being part of a team that has experienced so much Super Rugby success is something which is really special for him.
He said it is almost as special as the time he spends in the Eastern Cape with his family.
“When it is all said and done I can boast to my brother that I have two Super Rugby trophies and he… unfortunately…has none.”
By Michael Mentz