Mapisa, Wessels were future Boks

Springbok captain John Smit is "devastated" by the news that two top rugby players were killed and another seriously injured in a car accident on Tuesday night.

Springbok captain John Smit is "devastated" by the news that two top rugby players were killed and another seriously injured in a car accident on Tuesday night.

Griffons fullback Ashley Mapisa, 23, and prop Nardus "Pompies" Wessels, 22, died instantly when the vehicle in which they were travelling overturned after a tyre burst.

Wing Cedric Mkhize, 22, who was driving, sustained severe spinal injuries.

Smit said: "Pompies always had a smile on his face and worked really hard. He was slowly establishing himself in the Sharks team and would probably have become a Bok one day.

"I can only imagine how hard it is for both their families."

Sharks players Wessels and Mkhize were on loan to the Griffons.

The players were about 40km outside Bloemfontein in Free State when a tyre on their Toyota Condor burst and the vehicle rolled several times.

Andries Botha, a reserve hooker, suffered deep lacerations to the head. Sandile India, a reserve flank-lock, fractured an arm, and wing-centre Kurtlee van Vuuren broke his collarbone.

Yesterday, the head of the training academy, Hans Scriba, said he was in a state of shock about Wessels' and Mapisa's deaths and Mkhize's injury.

He said: "This was an important time in both their careers. They were professional and played so well."

Smit said: "We are devastated. Last night we chatted about it in Johann Muller's room. They were two of our most special guys.

"They were part of a new breed of youngsters we were getting into the union."

He said Wessels and Mapisa were part of the squad in the build-up to the Super 14.

"We spent three months with them. Cedric played in the Super 12 in 2005 and Super 14 in 2006, and Pompies played in the Currie Cup last year."

He recalled that in 2005, when the Sharks played the Reds, "Cedric gave Wendell Sailor a torrid evening".

He said Sailor had told them afterwards: "Jeez, that boy has unbelievable pace," and Mkhize was only 20 then.

Smit said: "It's a tragedy. Both guys had their lives ahead of them. One is dead and the other is fighting to get to a rugby field again."

Mkhize played seven Super matches for the Sharks and was also a member of the South African Under-21 team that won the World Championships in Argentina in 2005.

A stunned Sharks rugby director, Rudolf Straeuli, could hardly find the words to express how he felt yesterday.

He said he was on his way to fetch Mkhize's parents and fly them to Bloemfontein to be with their son.

Mkhize's girlfriend also caught a plane to be at his bedside.

"Cedric has stabilised in the intensive care unit in Bloemfontein," Straeuli said.

"I've spoken to Eugene van Wyk, the Griffons chief executive, and Cedric is doing as well as can be expected."

Esmarie Cronje, spokesman for Rose Park Hospital, said: "Mkhize underwent back surgery and is recovering in the intensive care unit. He is speaking a little. It is still too early to make any prognosis."

Straeuli said: "Nardus was an unbelievable person and a remarkable talent. His untimely death is a big loss to rugby in this country."

Sharks chief executive Brian van Zyl expressed his sympathy to the families of the dead players, and sent his best wishes for the recovery of the injured.

"This is not good for South African rugby when young players are suddenly and catastrophically removed from the rugby world," Van Zyl said in a statement.

"Our condolences go to the families of Nardus Wessels and Ashley Mapisa, and I am sure I speak on behalf of the entire rugby fraternity when I mourn the losses of these young players.

"On behalf of everyone at the Sharks, we wish those injured players a speedy and complete recovery."

Condolences have been pouring in since Sharks fans learnt of the accident. Yesterday, the team's website was filled with messages of sympathy to the families. - Sowetan Reporter