Loosehead prop Sti Sithole has taken the long road from Durban to Johannesburg in order to find his place as a superstar scrummager at the Lions.
At their best, the Emirates Lions have built their enterprising attack on the foundation of a powerful set-piece.
In the Super Rugby era under Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin, it was a unit of Jacques van Rooyen, Malcolm Marx and either Julian Redelinghuys or Dylan Smith who led the engagement at scrum time.
Now, it is 29-year-old Sithole who forms up in another formidable front row alongside rake PJ Botha and tighthead Ruan Dreyer.
Under Redelinghuys’ mentorship - the former Springbok took up the role of scrum coach after a neck injury forced him into retirement in 2017 - the often underestimated Lions scrum has fired on all cylinders in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and downshifted more fancied opponents into reverse gear.
Sithole was forced to take the road less travelled to get to this point, powered by a conviction that he would one day be a mainstay in the big leagues.
Starring for Westville Boys’ High’s 1st XV, Sithole was selected for the KwaZulu-Natal Country Districts side, effectively the KZN U18 third team. After school, Sithole was picked up by Western Province and later proved his worth for the Junior Springboks at the 2013 U20 Championship, alongside the likes of Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel.
However, the loosehead prop stocks at Western Province were abundant – including the more senior trio of Steven Kitshoff, Ali Vermaak and Oli Kebble all being contracted at the time – which mostly limited Sithole to the Vodacom Cup.
A short-term loan to the Southern Kings turned out to be exactly what Sithole needed as he used the opportunity to step out of the shadows, playing 10 games in the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Always on the hunt for a diamond in the rough, the Emirates Lions snapped up Sithole in 2016 and, though he initially had to bide his time, a raft of departures at the end of the De Bruin-era gave Sithole a shot to lock down the No 1 jersey under coach Ivan van Rooyen.
"Sti is something else," Van Rooyen said. "He's probably one of the top three athletes I've seen develop in the 12 years I've been involved in rugby. He's a physical specimen.
"His growth over the past four years has been unbelievable. I'm really happy for him.”
Sithole made his 50th appearance for the Emirates Lions in the clash against Ulster in round 5 on the Vodacom URC, and with a track record of successfully challenging the best of South Africa’s scrum anchors, the athletic loosehead is an imposing piece in a Lions arsenal gunning for glory.