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Eight years ago this month Takudzwa Ngwenya scored the most famous try in American rugby history. After a Todd Clever interception made its way through the hands of Alec Parker and Mike Hercus, the relatively unknown winger stepped and outraced South Africa’s Bryan Habana, widely considered the fastest man in rugby at the time, to score on the game’s biggest stage – the Rugby World Cup.
Ngwenya will play in his third, and likely final, World Cup here in a couple of weeks. After the ’07 tournament, he parlayed the fame from that scorching try into a long, prosperous professional career in France, where he continued to leave some of the game’s biggest names in his wake.
However, the 15s and 7s Eagle’s international career wouldn’t be without some rough waters. After 2011, another World Cup year, Ngwenya missed more Eagle tests than he made. His pro team, Biarritz, was often to blame for his absence, pressuring the lightning try machine to choose between club and country. But sometimes the fault lied with Ngwenya and his camp, too.
In 2012, Z played in just one of the USA’s six matches. In 2013 he appeared in a third of their nine games. In 2014, he was absent through the first six, including Rugby World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay. After making amends with USA head coach Mike Tolkin, Ngwenya earned another shot and was selected for the fall tour, scoring a try in each of his two appearances.
Saturday at Soldier Field against Australia, he had arguably his best performance in an Eagles shirt in years, setting up one try and delivering big on defense.
In the opening minute of the match, Ngwenya rushed up and forced a knock-on inside Australian territory. Towards the end of the first half, he rushed up again and made a positive-grade tackle that helped slow the Australian attack and ensure the Eagles would go into the shed down just four points.
At the onset of the second half, he barreled over an obstructing Wallaby en route to tackling the dangerous Kurtley Beale. Later he created a turnover with a smashing tackle on an Australian wing, wrapping up the ball carrier while AJ MacGinty stole the pill, though the play was nullified by a penalty from a previous phase.
And of course he played an integral role in the USA’s scintillating try, which had shades of that 2007 score. He got the ball in space on the right wing after a couple of forwards had gained some hard yards, shimmied past one defender, broke a second tackle attempt and offloaded to Mike Petri for the score.
“It’s been a while,” said Ngwenya of performing well for the Eagles. “Me getting two games back-to-back, that kind of helped me, personally.”
For much of the last two years, whether or not Ngwenya would be in the fold for this month’s World Cup was in doubt, but the former Dallas resident seems right back at home in the USA setup. And there's no place like home.
“It means the world to me. I was happy they called me back, because I’ve been held up in France for most of the time, and now they let me go and actually gave me a chance,” Ngwenya said of his international comeback.
“It started in November. I had a good showing in November, scored a couple of tries. It was good fun, and it means the world that they actually called me back, so I’m so grateful to Tolks for giving me a chance again.”
Last week’s loss to Australia at Soldier Field was bittersweet. The Eagles were down just four to the No. 2 team in the world at halftime, and if Chris Wyles’ break had been converted into a try in the second half, it would have been a two-score game with 10 minutes to play. Instead, Australia took the ball 99 meters the other direction for a back-breaking try that opened the floodgates.
Still, the final score of 47-10 was markedly better than the 67-5 loss to Australia at the 2011 World Cup, the 74-6 defeat to New Zealand in Chicago last year or even the 64-15 loss to South Africa in the ’07 World Cup.
“The best thing I see is we’re actually mad we lost by 50,” said Ngwenya. “Last year we would have been like, you know what we kept them under 50. That’s a good thing. When I played in ‘07, our goal against South Africa was to keep them under 60. Now we’re actually mad thinking we’re just one play away.”
The competitive mindset isn’t the only thing to improve in Ngwenya’s absence, so has the depth at his position. With the emergence of some younger 7s stars, Ngwenya’s had to fight for playing time more so than probably any time prior to that famous blazing of Habana.
“Pressure builds us, it molds us,” said Z. “When we train, when we go at each other one-on-one, that’s pretty good, because we have great players like Zack Test, Brett Thompson, even Folau can play wing. It’s good for us – at least I know if I don’t play, they can own up.”
What the future holds for Ngwenya is uncertain. Like for many of his teammates, Lou Stanfill and Mike Petri come immediately to mind, this is likely the last World Cup run and perhaps even the last international hoorah altogether for Ngwenya. So Z’s calendar has a lot of open space November and beyond, but the next two months are committed.
"For now our goal is to try to make the quarterfinals," said Ngwenya. "At least, when I retire, I can say we made it to the quarterfinals, we managed to go through the pool stage. So it’s all about the quarterfinals. This is all I have in my head."