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Blood, sweat, and tears pay off for rugby prodigy

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When Nick Feinberg answered his phone last Friday morning, he became teary-eyed. He found out that his son, the 20-year-old Stormers versatile flyhalf, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, was named in the 35-man Springbok squad for the European end-of-year tour which starts in Ireland this weekend.

“I’m elated because playing rugby is what my son does, and getting a call-up for the Springboks is obviously the pinnacle of the sport,” Feinberg says of his son being included in the squad alongside the likes of 2019 Rugby World Cup-winners Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, and Faf de Klerk.

At the beginning of October, Sacha’s main goal was to get into the Stormers match-day 23.

“Now, he has been selected by the world champions,” his dad marvels. “It’s an incredible achievement. It feels amazing. I’m slightly anxious, but also really happy.”

Sacha, born in 2002, is the son of Feinberg and his Johannesburg-based mother, Makhosazana Mngomezulu, who met in 2000 after he emigrated from England to South Africa in 1994.

“Sacha isn’t Jewish by religion because your religion is determined by your mother,” says Feinberg. “I’m a non-practising Jew and my family are atheists but still, I’m very conscious of Judaism. I won’t stand for antisemitism, and my son is the same. In fact, I fought antisemitism on the streets of London. Half of my mother’s family were wiped out by the Nazis.”

Feinberg says his family always thought Sacha could be called up to national training camp given his captaincy of the Junior Boks at this year’s Under-20 Six Nations Summer Series in Italy, where South Africa defeated England, Ireland, France, and Wales to lift the title. “Therefore, there wasn’t a ‘big’ reaction from Sacha on the actual Bok call-up. Conversely, it was an emotional moment for me.”

Feinberg becomes anxious watching Sacha play, particularly now that the stakes have been raised. “So, unless I’m at the stadium, I watch at home, generally alone. It’s not clear at this point when he will be getting a run during the tour, so I won’t be travelling.”

Sacha is currently training with the Springbok team in Dublin ahead of their match against Ireland on Saturday. “He’s not taking any calls, even from family,” says his dad. “He’s just absolutely engulfed in what he’s doing in Ireland.”

Although Feinberg is unsure how much game time Sacha will get during the tour, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber said in a recent press conference, “If he gets selected in these games, which probably will happen, it will be nice to see him performing at this stage, almost a little step higher to the URC (United Rugby Championship).”

Nienaber described Sacha as a brilliant rugby player. “He’s athletic, fast, quick, and agile. He has good skills. He had to make a decision between soccer and rugby, so he’s a skilful guy. From a defensive viewpoint, he really impressed me for his age. He certainly doesn’t look bang [scared].”

Sacha has managed to get selected at every level since the age of 13. “Grant Khomo Week, Craven Week, SA Schools, SA 7’s [under-18 team], Western Province, Stormers, so many great achievements,” his dad says. “He had a great school career as well. I’d say captaining the Junior Springboks [the national under-20 team] was probably his most special achievement so far.”

Feinberg says the national team call-up was the culmination of “blood, sweat, and tears”.

“Sacha has put in so much time and hard work [sweat]. He’s also suffered a number of injuries, a couple that have meant operations, having his teeth knocked in through his gum guard [blood], and there have been tears mainly of joy from him, but some of disappointment from myself. For example, being injured and needing an elbow operation two days before leaving to play in Wales.”

Sacha developed a love for the sport by playing tag rugby every Friday at school when he was five or six. “I played [rugby] all through school,” he told Rugby World in September. “I was good at football and was in the South African Ajax squad. I played first-team cricket at school too. When I was 15, I focused on rugby. It was more appealing.”

He moved into the provincial system at that age, and got his first professional contract in 2020.

Sacha’s grandfather, Barry Feinberg, was an anti-apartheid activist.

Barry, a poet, painter, and filmmaker, got involved with the African National Congress, and went into exile to London in 1961 after the Sharpeville Massacre. Feinberg was born and raised there, growing up around London’s exile community which included some of South Africa’s most renowned politicians. “I was around many of the guys who became leaders post-1994,” Feinberg says. “The likes of Ronnie Kasrils and Aziz Pahad were very close friends of my dad’s.”

Feinberg himself worked for the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund, which funded political prisoners in South Africa during the 1980s.

Sacha plans to study something like entrepreneurship and has a few business ideas.

“Anything that he enjoys doing, he seems to excel at,” Feinberg says. “He has only ever been disappointed when he couldn’t play the following week when he had an injury. Nobody has ever pushed him. He’s self-motivated. If he has a bad kicking game, he’ll be out by himself on the field with a bunch of balls kicking the following day to put himself straight.”

Sacha underwent a huge growth spurt in the four months following his appearance for the Stormers in their URC quarterfinal against Edinburgh last season. “I have never seen a graph like that. I don’t know how we can leave him out of the Stormers side ever again,” Stormers coach John Dobson told the media.

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