Bulls star Lizo Gqoboka destined for the Boks
Bulls' prop a graduate of life and rugby's school of hard knocks
Waiting, it seems, has taken up much of Lizo Gqoboka's existence.
Rugby wasn't played at Tabankulu High School in Mount Frere where he comes from and it was only after he moved to Durban that he was introduced to the game. There he only cracked his club's first team at the behest of their captain, had to agonise for five months before he got a contract at the Southern Kings and had to bide his time in the well-stocked front-row queue. Later he was made to wait for his salary and the trend has continued as injury agonisingly prevented him from making his Test debut.
Still, Gqoboka is in no rush.
You are unlikely to meet a player more fastidiously in the moment or as grounded.
The hardship he encountered at the Kings was nothing short of soul destroying. He has learnt, however, to keep his chin up.
"I wouldn't trade those days for anything," said the Bulls' loosehead. "It contributed to the person I am. Not getting things too fast helps build character. Often as players we get too much fame early and too much money early and the character is not there yet. It was tough but I'm grateful," said Gqoboka.
Grateful? When he started at the Kings, Gqoboka went without electricity for days and used a curtain for lack of a blanket. Then it got worse.
"There was a time I only had flour and sugar and I gooied it together. I couldn't finish it at once because I didn't know where the next meal was coming from. I had to ration. I had no relatives there," said Gqoboka.
He had set his sights on a sport he was only introduced to aged 19. "I didn't even know that you could make a living from sport," recalled Gqoboka about his arrival in Durban to study business management. That was before a friend introduced him to the game.
"I looked at him and I thought he's small, this guy. If he can do it I can also do it."
He played No 8 for Queensburgh Rugby Club, moved to Collegians where he started playing prop from 2010. "I could see I was good at this. I'd fallen in love with the game.
"Charles Ndaweni at Empangeni told me 'you're very talented, this is just wrong. You need a lot of work but I don't think the Sharks or the Bulls will give you an opportunity. They want someone who is ready. Go to the Kings, Border or SWD.'"
FROM A KING TO A PAUPER, TO A BULL
For seven months Gqoboka couldn't find a job in Durban. He took to Google and started calling the Kings, every day. "They said send a video of myself. I didn't have one."
Despite working for a construction company where Gqoboka was supposed to help build a bridge in Pinetown, he went for a trial at the Kings. "My boss kept calling me. He said: 'We've just hired you. You can't not be here.' I said to him 'thanks for the opportunity but I'll give rugby a chance'."
Rugby, it seems, wasn't ready to give him a chance, yet. "I played the trial and played well and thought I'd get a contract. On the Monday, nothing. In fact, nothing for five months. In the end I could not believe they gave me a one-year contract. I was even praying for a three-month contract."
He eventually made an impact at the Kings, and the Bulls came knocking. The decision was easy as the Kings stopped paying.
He has made his mark at Loftus. The manner in which he has dealt with life's vicissitudes has also become a powerful asset in the way he sets about the set piece. "As a prop you always pride yourself in the way you scrum. We saw that last week. You get more confidence but it's gone, it's not going to help me this week at all. On Mondays we go back to zero, win or lose. But you become stronger. You take nothing for granted."
He views his wait for a Test cap very philosophically. "When I got injured my son was one month old. I would have been a stranger to him had I toured.
"I would be delighted to make my debut this year, hopefully. My focus, however, is to improve on an everyday basis."