South African duo putting Rovers firmly on the Championship map

Bongani Khumalo
Bongani Khumalo
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Loan defender Bongani Khumalo produced another fine display for Doncaster Rovers at Wigan Athletic – sparking talk of an international recall for South Africa. Leon Wobschall reports.

GO to any football-mad enclave in South Africa and chances are you will see a plethora of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts worn by the locals.

You would most definitely get long odds on seeing any Doncaster Rovers jerseys, but that could be about to change.

The fortunes of the stars of the national team – the Bafana Bafana – in various European leagues is followed religiously by supporters and Rovers possess not one but two current internationals in Dean Furman and Bongani Khumalo.

The latter may currently be out of the fold, but the smart money is on that changing very shortly.

That is due to the impressive form of the loan centre-half, who carried on from where he left off against Blackburn with another strong display at Wigan on Tuesday.

His pace, anticipation, heading and covering helped continually thwart the best efforts of the Latics, who laid siege in the final half-hour with Rovers cruelly denied three points at the death when Leon Barnett smashed in a 90th-minute leveller.

While there was disappointment for Rovers in seeing a 2-0 interval lead slip in a 2-2 Championship draw, that soon dissipated with the performances of the likes of Khumalo giving plenty of hope for the many battles ahead.

Club matters may be the priority of Khumalo, 26, who joined on a season-long loan from Spurs last month, but the big defender also has one eye on regaining his international place which he lost after captaining his country in the African Nations Cup at the start of the year when the hosts disappointingly bowed out in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out loss to Mali in the quarter-finals.

Khumalo, capped 26 times, has not played since, but following his recent good form with Rovers, a recall is very much on the cards ahead of his country’s vital World Cup qualifier against Botswana on September 7.

Bafana must win to keep alive their dreams of reaching the play-offs ahead of next year’s finals in Brazil and then hope that Ethiopia do not beat the Central African Republic in Congo.

The stakes could not be higher for Bafana and Khumalo, who played in all three matches in the 2010 World Cup finals in his native South Africa, netting in their final Group A game when they beat France 2-1 in Bloemfontein.

On a recall to the national side, whose coach Gordon Igesund this week described Khumalo’s early-season form as “outstanding”, he said: “There has been some talk of me going back. But there’s a couple of games before then and that is what I am fully focused on. But there have been some calls from South Africa.

“I got a call from my agent in the morning before the (Wigan) game saying they were trying to get hold of me. We’ll see what happens.

“Everyone wants to play for their country and I have been fortunate enough to play in a World Cup in my own country which was a special occasion. When you get called up for the national team, it’s a special feeling.

“I have been a little bit unfortunate with injuries and timings of games but now I feel good and strong and if I do well for Doncaster, hopefully the rest will fall into place.

“Every single Premiership game is shown in South Africa, but in terms of the Championship, it’s the odd game here and there.

“But there’s a large following with myself and Dean playing and a lot of people are interested in our results and we’ve put Doncaster on the map with South African people.

“If we keep doing well, we’ll get more supporters on the other side of the world.

“I might have to take a lot of Doncaster jerseys when I go back!”

Rovers’ defence may have ultimately been breached twice at the DW, but the display of the back four in coping with an frenzied onslaught at times against a side tipped by many to make an instant return to the top-flight still deservedly earned praise.

And despite the late concession of an equaliser, the positives massively outweighed the negatives for Paul Dickov’s side, with Rovers’ unquenchable spirit, desire and organisation remaining fully intact following a remarkable 2012-13 campaign.

If anyone personified Rovers’ character and aptitude last season it was captain Rob Jones and Khumalo admits he is learning plenty from playing alongside him – with their partnership and understanding growing by the game.

He said: “Rob has been brilliant.

“It’s important no matter who you play with in the heart of defence, to get good communication and talking going. And Rob, as the captain and leader, is brilliant at that and I am learning as much as I can and as quickly as I can from him.

“He’s helped me settle in a lot. If I play well, a lot of that is down to him.

“A non-negotiable here is the work-rate and everyone is committed to the cause. It’s a pity we couldn’t get three points at Wigan, but there were a lot of positives.

“If you have the team spirit and positive energy and belief we have, any team can go anywhere.

“It’s also important to have that work-rate and quality and I believe we have that. We would like to surprise some people this season.

“It’s okay to be the underdog, I don’t mind that. We can be the underdog all season as long as we get to a good position.”

Doncaster chief Dickov was delighted to earn a share of the spoils against the FA Cup holders and said: “To go up gainst a team that I consider one of the best, if not the best squad in the whole division and to compete the way we did and get a point was really pleasing.”