JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A team of rugby players with championship hopes relished practicing on the beach, away from their impoverished township in southeastern South Africa.
But after going for a post-practice swim on Sunday, team members were swept away by rough seas and a strong current. One player drowned and five others remained missing on Monday. John Fletcher, coordinator for the Coastal Water Rescue Squad, said his volunteers rescued 15 of the players, but were unable to resuscitate one of the men, and five remained missing. He said strong winds created the rough conditions on the water.
Capt. Andre Beegte, a police spokesman, said helicopters were being used as the search continued Monday. Searchers patrolled the coastline on horses and all-terrain vehicles, and police divers also were called in, Beegte said.
Mncedisi Mazomba, a player-manager for the Motherwell Rugby Football Club, said city officials have arranged for counseling for relatives of the dead man and for those missing and presumed dead.
He said the team was formed in 1992 as an outlet for boys and young men from Port Elizabeth's Motherwell Township. It kept them away from crime and other dangers, he said. The club had three teams that played other minor league teams along South Africa's eastern coast, and even traveled as far as Cape Town, on the western coast.
They regularly practiced on the beach, enjoying "fresh air, beautiful scenery," Mazomba said.
Sunday's practice was in preparation for a local championship tournament in Cape Town. Mazomba added that Sunday was his birthday.
"The feeling was supposed to be a cheerful one, spending your birthday with your team," he said. "And at the end of the day, we lost six teammates."
Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union, sent his condolences.
"To have their afternoon turn into a day of tragedy is shocking for the whole rugby community and our thoughts go out to their family," Hoskins said.
Mazomba said the team would probably drop out of the championship.