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Rugby | SuperSport Challenge

Thierry Kounga © Gallo Images

Kounga's journey from Cameroon to KZN

Thierry Kounga may also be French-speaking, but how he got to Kings Park is slightly different to how Olivier Roumat, Thierry Lacroix and Freddie Michalak did.

The 23-year-old Sharks XV tighthead prop’s journey to the SuperSport Rugby Challenge begins in Bafoussam, Cameroon. It takes in a walk from Mozambique into South Africa through the Kruger National Park, a few bit-part roles in Johannesburg for club side Raiders and the Valke, trials with the Pumas and the Lions, and what he thought was a big-time move to Sydney to play for the Waratahs.

In what can only be proof that the Rugby Challenge – in the same way rugby caters for all shapes and sizes – has become the foundation for all kinds of ambitions, Kounga’s journey to be a professional rugby player began again in the tournament despite 30 000km already travelled on his quest.

Still just 23, Kounga has seen pretty much all rugby has to offer.

He’s seen the seductive side to it, when a rugby-playing friend prevailed over a 15-year-old striker in Bafoussam to try the oval-shaped ball and lit the fuse as a result. “I wasn’t interested but he kept on pushing,” remembers Kounga. “I decided to go and train and since then I’ve loved it.”

Having started as a prop even then, he knew that to progress to a decent level he had to play in a less football-mad place, so he chose to move to South Africa at 17. So, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, he paid a stranger to take him to the Rainbow Nation through Mozambique, which meant hoping the predators in the Kruger didn’t catch them walking through the game reserve.

“I was scared, I didn't know where I was going,” Kounga told the newspaper. "I was just at the mercy of whatever happens, happens.”

Once in Jo'burg, he played for Raiders and had trials with the Pumas, the Valke and was hoping for a contract with the Lions when the chance to play for the Waratahs came in 2014. “A friend of mine, (lawyer) Derrick Kaufmann, is a good friend of (then ‘Tahs assistant coach) Darryl Gibson, so he asked him if I could train with them.

“They said yes and after a scrum session (then coach) Michael Cheika said he was happy with me, and could I travel with them to the rest of their tour games in South Africa. After that he said if I was willing to sign with them I could go back to Sydney with them.”

A combination of two of the vagaries of being a professional rugby player – the fickle nature of coaches and their preferences, and injury – struck. In only his second training session with the Waratahs he aggravated an old ACL knee injury sustained while at Raiders.

And once Gibson became head coach, he told Kounga he wouldn’t renew his one-year contract. There seemed to be a light at the end of that tunnel when he signed for French Pro D2 side Carcassonne, but they dumped him when they found out he was injured.

Back in SA last year and recuperating, College Rovers inquired after him and asked if he would be interested in playing for them, and this has led to four (one start and three sub appearances) games for the Sharks XV in the Rugby Challenge.

Asked why he keeps coming back for more when disappointment and bad luck appear to stalk him, his answer is simple.

“When I left home I made my mum a promise that one day I would come back and take care of her,” says Kounga, who is the sole breadwinner at home and used to do manual labour on roads in Cameroon. “I haven’t seen her in five years and I’m not going back until I keep my promise.

“I believe that everything in life happens for a reason. It doesn’t matter what people tell you, you have a choice to prove to yourself that that doesn’t have to be your reality. When I came back from Australia they told me I couldn’t be here again, but here I am.”

Kounga, who’s on match fees at the Sharks and is a compact 1.78m and 115kg, says while he can play both props he prefers tighthead because he’s more comfortable scrumming with both his shoulders instead of one at loosehead.

He certainly will need both shoulders for the no-doubt fascinating journey ahead.


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