JOHANNESBURG – It hasn’t taken long for Vincent Tshituka to become a Lions fan favourite.
After he’d emptied his tank and was replaced in the 75th minute of last Saturday’s match against the Stormers at Ellis Park, he walked off to a standing ovation to join his team-mates on the side of the field.
A few minutes later he was announced as Man of the Match in his team’s 41-22 win, which has reignited hopes that the Lions will finish in the top eight on the log and feature in the Super Rugby play-offs in a few weeks’ time.
“It’s the most love and appreciation I’ve got from the fans,” said the big flanker who’s in his debut season at this level.
“Of course the fans wouldn’t have known me, a new guy coming into the team, so they wouldn’t have been sure, and the only way they could make a judgement was through my performing for them. I’ve now given them something to appreciate… and I felt their love, and it felt good.”
The 20-year-old added it was good to have been named Man of the Match after his strong performance, but that loose forward partner Kwagga Smith was just as deserving.
“I felt honoured to get the award; it’s never happened to me before. I thought Kwagga was outstanding, like he is every week, and I so look up to him.
“He is so consistent and produces the goods week in and week out. He’s a top class player and I’d have been so happy for him had he won the award.”
Tshituka has become something of a mainstay in the Lions team in recent weeks, having fought back from an ankle injury this year.
He said yesterday he was pleased he’d been able to prove himself good enough to his team-mates.
“I’ve always felt part of this team but I think I now feel I belong,” he said. “I wanted to earn and deserve my team-mates’ trust; I didn’t just want something handed to me. I wanted to play and show my value to them, and I’m glad I’ve been able to do that now.”
Tshituka’s next big test will come against the Hurricanes this weekend. He said he enjoyed testing himself against some of the world’s best players, and in Ardie Savea on Saturday he’ll be up against one of the toughest men in the game.
“I’m absolutely excited,” he said with a beaming smile.
“Every time I go up against names, it excites me. I like to see how I perform against them. Even when I was at school at Northcliff High, which was small in rugby terms, I’d always come up against name-players… I’d be up against this guy, or that guy… and it was always exciting for me.”
So far, the one foreign player he has enjoyed facing is Waratahs and Wallabies man Michael Hooper.
“It was a cool experience playing against him, rather than watching him on TV,” said Tshituka.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have been dealt a big blow ahead of the Round 17 match at Ellis Park on Saturday with loose-forward Vaea Fifita out of the game after being handed a three-match ban following his red-carding for a high tackle during last week’s match against the Sharks in Durban.