Pilgrimage for Progress in club championships
Emotional comebacks are a dime-a-dozen in sport these days but rarely are they as stirring as Progress Rugby Club's return to the national club championships, which kicked off in Stellenbosch yesterday.
The Uitenhage side - comprising mostly shift workers at the blue-collar Eastern Cape town's tyre factory and car assembly plant - caused the biggest upset in the tournament's history in 2006 when, playing as an invited development team, they beat 12-times champions Maties in the main match of the opening day.
Progress's shock victory, and their dream of returning to the champs the following year as worthy Eastern Province champions, even became the subject of a documentary to be broadcast on New Zealand TV during next year's Rugby World Cup.
It might have taken them longer than planned, but Progress finally achieved their goal last week when they won the EP Grand Challenge final to book their ticket back to the scene of their famous triumph.
The team's victory at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was bittersweet after tragedy struck two families associated with the club. The under-21 coach, Abraham Jacobs, died of a heart attack just weeks before the game. Then, on August 21, after Progress' win against Gardens, Bevan Joseph, 10, the son of the former Progress president, EP CEO Philip Joseph, was killed when a section of grandstand collapsed on him. The collapse was caused by a spectator stampede in an ill-tempered match.
"After the funeral I told the guys: 'Let's do this for Bevan and Oom Abraham,'" said prop Zama Takayi. "That's what motivated us to get here. I said to them before the final: 'Whenever you feel tired, just think of Bevan and Oom Abraham.'"
Takayi, a former EP Schools No8 whose cameo performance at lock in the match against Maties swung the momentum Progress's way, said his side's attitude was different.
"In 2006, everything was new for us," he said. "The guys weren't afraid because just to be there was great. This time we're here as champions and we know what we're playing for."
In this year's final against champions Park, Progress were 14-0 down but rallied to pull off a nail-biting 28-25 victory.
"It felt just like beating Maties," said Takayi. "Park beat us earlier in the season and in last year's semifinals. We finished fourth on the log but our hearts were right. We were the underdogs, but we fought like hyenas."
Takayi, 30, epitomises the fighting spirit of Progress. Despite preferring to play in the second or back row, he has put the team first by converting to prop - much to the delight of dad Sidney, a front-rower who toured Europe in 1974 as part of the SA African Rugby Board's Leopards team.
"I'm an all-rounder, but I think I'm going to stick around at prop," he said. "I scrummed against an EP guy in the final and I did well. I was so nervous, but my dad said to me I must just enjoy myself and make history.
"I called him afterwards and said: 'Dad, we are the champs.' My father is a serious man but he couldn't stop screaming."
Progress advanced to tomorrow's quarterfinals with a hard-fought win against East London Police yesterday, scoring their winning try in injury time.
But Takayi refused to be drawn. "I don't even want to think about it," he said. "What we've done well this year is take everything step by step and that won't change now.
"If we do play them, only then will we sort something out."
Danie Craven Stadium
Tomorrow: Cup and plate quarterfinals.
Wednesday: Cup and plate semifinals.
Friday: Plate final 11am, cup final 1pm.