It’s New world for Winter Rose

Winter Rose Rugby Club is reaping the benefits of a rugby exchange programme with New Zealand, that saw seven people from the club in New Zealand last month.

Winter Rose coach Songezo Sam and six players, namely Luxolo Jingqi, Akona Luhabe, Azola Mati, Siyavuya Matanga, Luvo Bazi and Junior Mlonyeni recently returned from the exchange programme, with Mlonyeni now looking to go back in a few months time.

Mlonyeni had already been asked to stay in New Zealand for an extra week to play in a match before returning to SA and, with him having impressed, he will now be heading back over for a longer period.

Winter Rose players and coach perform the haka at NU13 stadium after returning from an exchange programme in New Zealand. The players, from left, are: Akhona Luhabe, Luvo Bazi, Luxolo Jingqi, Songezo Sam (coach), Junior Mlonyeni, Siyavuya Matanga and Azola Mati Picture: MICHAEL PINYANA

“It was very special and humbling to be asked to stick around for an extra week and play in the match,” said Mlonyeni.

“I am very excited to go back and I will probably be there for a year, playing rugby for Stratford rugby club in Taranaki.

“I will be paid and someone will sponsor me a place to stay, so it is all very exciting and I hope I can make a big impression when I am back and learn a lot and progress as a rugby player.”

Mlonyeni explained that rugby is different in New Zealand, and hopes it can one day become similar in SA.

“The big difference was the speed of the game. Here things are more structured and there they don’t structure the game as much,” he said.

“It was hard to adapt but I really enjoyed it and can hopefully give our guys some tips on how to play that way.”

Sam also enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot from the trip, which he hopes to teach others at Winter Rose.

“Rugby is so professional over there. It is their life and they have a completely different attitude towards players and coaches,” explained Sam.

“There are a lot more resources, the facilities are amazing and no matter what the weather rugby is still played.

“Players playing at club level are earning enough to just play rugby, so that they don’t have to have other jobs and can just focus on playing and improving their game.

“I picked up a lot over there and will try and help implement some of it here. The one thing that stuck with me the most was the one-on-one player monitoring, which was a big thing for me.”

The idea of an exchange programme originally came from Imvomvo, an NGO that uses sport as a tool for social change and has a partnership with Winter Rose.

Imvomvo had a partnership with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) Organisation which assisted NGOs with recruitment of NZ volunteers.

In 2008 Luntu Rara, a then Winter Rose captain, went to New Zealand for three weeks and was hosted by Petone Club and mentored by the Petone coach co-ordinator David Pollock.

This was the beginning of the New Zealand and Winter Rose relationship.

It took more than a year until Pollock came to visit Winter Rose, thanks to funding received from NZAID, with him arriving in Mdantsane for two weeks in October 2009.

In the meantime the club had established a Junior Rugby and U15 programme driven by Greg Stevenson, an Otago University Exchange volunteer who came through Imvomvo to drive the programme.

The Pollock visit was an opportunity to continue the progress that had been made in the programme and helped to set up a broader well-structured youth programme in Winter Rose.

“My time playing for Winter Rose was one of the best experiences I have had,” said Stevenson in correspondence from New Zealand.

“I’ve played across the world and the passion of the players and fans at Winter Rose is among the best I’ve seen.

“In Tauranga, where I now live, there is a rugby academy called Inside Running.

“The academy offers scholarships to players that cannot afford the fees and I forwarded the details of the academy to Winter Rose and they arrange to send players to the academy.”

Winter Rose will hope that this connection to New Zealand can keep being used and strengthened over the coming years.