KATLEHONG, South Africa (AP) — Their catches still uncertain, their sneakers worn and unsuitable, a team of young South Africans is trying to find success in a sport that that’s a traditional favorite in their country, but rare in their own neighborhood — rugby.
Katlehong Tigers’ Coach Sicelo Jonnie’s voice rises above the tuneless honking of minibus taxis as he drills his team on a poorly lit, rough field in this township southeast of Johannesburg. Amateur soccer teams who also practice here have first dibs on the more level, better lit fields. Occasionally, a soccer ball rolls into the Tigers’ field of play.
They are the one of the few amateur rugby teams in Katlehong, a cramped neighborhood flanked by factories, built only for black people under the racist apartheid system. Rugby has long been associated with and dominated by white South Africans and black players were barred from playing on the top teams.
“My body is built for rugby,” said Luvuyo Phakane, a stocky college student, explaining why he chose rugby over soccer. “I’m slow in running but strong enough to push everyone.”
The team has no water, no goal posts, and many come to training four days a week straight after a factory shift. At the end of the workout, a young player practicing in his leather school shoes throws himself onto the ground, his chest heaving.
The South African government has used quota systems and funding for amateur leagues as it has tried to diversify the sport since the country’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win, where Nelson Mandela lifted the trophy.
The coach has already registered the team in the local league, which means they’ll get new orange uniforms paid for by the government. They still have no cleats, and will play in whatever shoes they have come the weekend.
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