After his display of devastating elegance in the World Cup warm-up game at Twickenham on Friday night, Canan Moodie thanked his big brother, Keanu. He described him as his sporting idol. Why? Because he was the guy who walked the 10-mile journey to training with him through the dangerous streets of Paarl in the Western Cape.
It is a long time since all those present in the press box at Twickenham let out a collective yelp of excitement. But that is exactly what happened when the young Springbok got the ball in his hands, playing with the grace and poise that you expect to see from a ballet dancer at the Royal Opera House.
Moodie’s rise to the big stage is remarkable. He dodged drugs and gangsters on the streets near his home, overcoming adversity on a journey that reached a checkpoint this weekend with the Springboks’ record victory over New Zealand.
‘Playing against the All Blacks in a packed Twickenham stadium… if you told me that a few years ago I would have laughed in your face,’ said the 20-year-old centre.
‘We all have different backgrounds but mine was gangsterism, drugs. Tough times. Two houses away from me was a drug house. Now, when I go home, things are still there. My parents did well to keep us away from that area, and rugby was the way to stay away from that. Playing touch rugby on the grass or in the road was our way of staying busy.
‘My brother kept me away from all that. When I looked up, he was working hard, walking 10, 15 kilometres to go and train. We didn’t have any transport and he’d do that walk after school. That motivated me.
‘Once I got a bit older, I started joining with him. It was tough, but if you come from a tough environment then you play the cards that you’re dealt. You have a bigger dream and I’ve seen that here today.’
After Friday’s match, South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber compared Moodie to 62-cap All Black Rieko Ioane. They both started out on the wing before moving inside; this was Moodie’s first Test start as a centre, in the No 13 jersey. Moodie described it as the position he ‘fell in love’ with when he first played there at secondary school.
‘In South Africa, we start playing quite early. Under-7 is the first time you play in a team environment. For high school I went to Boland, a small agricultural school with 350 boys. It’s basically on a big farm, staying in a hostel just outside of Paarl. I got the opportunity and I made the most of it. That’s where I got the dream and thought maybe this rugby thing can work.’
Moodie was also into athletics, describing himself as ‘an average guy’. There was nothing average about his latest rugby performance, adding to South Africa’s lethal team of backs who thrive in the wreckage created by their heavyweight pack.
Moodie’s intercept and offload in one swooping motion felt like an act of sorcery, before he stepped around defenders as if they were mannequins to score a try that was unpopularly disallowed.
Asked where he perfected his footwork, he said: ‘Most of us get our skill in the streets. We play in a road that’s probably five metres wide so you learn that ability to beat guys in small spaces.
‘We used to watch games with our friends or family. At half-time I’d go out into the road and imagine myself in this position. I’d be running in the road alone, kicking the ball and scoring the match-winning try.’
Moodie has the potential to light up the World Cup. Twickenham on Friday was packed with South Africans and the roar of appreciation for Siya Kolisi when he took the microphone after the final whistle was deafening. Kolisi connects with his people in a way of which most rugby players can only dream. Moodie could one day have a similar appeal if he keeps delivering performances like this.
‘Every opportunity I get I want to make the most of it,’ Moodie said. ‘This is what I dreamed of years ago, these are special memories.’