TOKYO, 2 Nov – Three years ago Makazole Mapimpi was just another little-known player with big dreams, playing first division rugby for cash-strapped Border Bulldogs in South Africa.
Now he is 80 minutes away from achieving legendary status if he can help the Springboks overcome England and lift the World Cup.
Mapimpi has always had pace to burn and an eye for the try-line, but as a young man from a township in the rural Eastern Cape, his destiny did not necessarily include playing for the Springboks. He did not attend a major rugby school or catch the eye of academy scouts. The sport was not even popular within his own family.
"There is nobody in my family who played rugby," he said. "I am the first and only one."
Mapimpi had not even played Super Rugby until 2017, when he achieved prominence with a remarkable breakout season for the Southern Kings in which he scored 11 tries, equal third-most of any player that year.
Last summer the Springboks finally came calling, and Mapimpi has not looked back. He scored on his debut in June 2018 against Wales and added two more in his second test against Argentina. Overall, Mapimpi crossed the whitewash 13 times in his first 12 tests, a remarkable haul that has marked him as the Springboks' most potent finisher.
"If you look at Makazole's past two to three years in Super Rugby and PRO14, he has always been one of the best finishers in the game," said Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick.
At Rugby World Cup 2019, Mapimpi has delivered five tries, level with Japan's Kotaro Matsushima and second only to Wales's Josh Adams.
His opening score in the quarter-final against Japan, as shown in the video above, displayed all the predatory instincts that have served him so well at this tournament. Lurking just behind the scrum, Mapimpi catches the Japanese defence completely off guard. His electric pace and ability to spot a gap take him past two attempted tackles with ease en route to the line.
At his best, Mapimpi is an opportunist, and he showed that once again in the video below. With Japan tiring late in the game, Mapimpi had the speed and the endurance to keep up with a swift Springbok break, popping up perfectly to receive the final pass from Willie Le Roux before bulldozing over Matsushima to touch down in the corner.
Mapimpi was particularly outstanding in that match, covering 111m, beating five defenders and making four clean breaks, more than any other player on the field. He has made the sixth-most metres (350) of any player in the tournament, just behind England's Anthony Watson (365).
But Mapimpi has also proved surprisingly effective in defence. Against Japan, he contributed enormously to the defensive effort that gradually broke the spirit of the Brave Blossoms. He was one of five Springboks in double figures for tackles (10), which made him only the fourth player in the tournament to have carried for more than 100m and completed at least 10 tackles.
Because of his defensive efforts, many within the Springbok camp regard Mapimpi as their most improved player over the past year.
"There were a lot of questions about his defence and aerial skills when we first included him in the Bok squad last year," said Stick.
"We were a bit concerned about how he would go when he actually got a chance to play. We saw him tearing defences to shreds for the Kings, and later for the Cheetahs, but he hadn't really had the opportunity to polish those other skills.
"Players who hail from the rural areas are discouraged from kicking the ball, but he put in a lot of work and we saw an improvement. That's what we mean when we say he was the most improved player – and here, we are talking across the board – in the past year or so."
Mapimpi has been outlined as one of the Springboks' biggest attacking threats ahead of the final, and Stick said that his special back story is inspirational to all South Africans.
"It's a very special story to tell about Makazole," he said. "As a youngster, he would walk 10km a day to school. It's a nice story to tell to youngsters that, irrespective of your background, if you work really hard and your opportunity comes, you need to be ready."