At the end of the 2001 Currie Cup season, without a provincial contract with any union, still smarting from the failed Sharks deal and without a trustworthy agent, I could feel rugby’s clenched fist putting the squeeze on my career.
All of a sudden, I was persona non grata. Exactly a year after I became a Springbok, I felt as though I was being followed by a bad smell – no one wanted to get near me.
Maybe it was the Kontiki debacle in Argentina that made people not want to touch me – I can’t say categorically. But it certainly wasn’t my on-field performances or any injury worries. Bar one or two niggles, which is common, I hadn’t suffered a serious injury in spite of the physicality of my game.
Still I persevered. After my last game at Griquas, I went home to Port Elizabeth. There I had an informal chat with Allister Coetzee, who at that point was coaching the Mighty Elephants, in which we spoke about me coming back to play for Eastern Province.
But I wasn’t ready to come back home and play in the comfort of a familiar environment. I still felt I had plenty to give and that I could have another shot at one of the big unions. I’d come so close to joining the Sharks on a long-term deal and that was cloying at the back of my mind. To keep myself fit and sharp, I trained with Spring Rose, but I didn’t play for them. I joined their Monday and Tuesday regular fitness sessions, which were a great help.
I was a ball of worry about my future, but I was not alone in this anxiety. Guys such as Kholekile Ralo, Luvuyo Matsha and Joseph Ntshongwana had also reached a glass ceiling in their careers.
January 2002 went by and there was still no news and no offers.
Luvuyo helped me out a lot during this period, when he was working in Johannesburg, as did Xhanti Lamani, who was working for SA Rugby in Cape Town.
Then, in the middle of February, Western Province came calling. Gert Smal, the coach, asked me to fly to Cape Town to discuss the possibility of joining the Capetonians.
I agreed to meet and shacked up with Xhanti who, it turned out, had planted my name in Rian Oberholzer’s mind as a player who was out of contract. The Western Province opportunity was the kind of springboard I relished, and one that could catapult me to the top once more. I needed to play some top-level rugby to catch the eye of the Bok coach, Rudolf Straeuli, and a move to Province had the potential to do that.
I left the meeting with Gert Smal feeling like we had had a good chat and that there was a real probability of me joining them, although there was no concrete offer on the table. An audible silence, however, followed me home from Cape Town. Western Province didn’t make any further contact or enquiries.
The Vodacom Cup was in full flow at this point and was passing me by. Again I felt a slight level of panic, but a call from Luvuyo in April managed to calm me a little. He alerted me to the open trials that the Lions were holding in the build-up to finalising their Currie Cup squad. He told me to fly up to Jo’burg and try out, assuring me I could stay at his place until I found my feet. I jumped at the chance.
So from April I stayed with Luvuyo and his girlfriend in a flat in Buccleuch while attending the Lions trials at UJ Stadium in Westdene. I must say, it felt good to be around people I knew from back home in New Brighton, but I knew the situation was temporary and that I had to make sure I clinched a place with the Lions.
I trained hard when I got to the Lions, who were being coached at the time by Eugene “Loffie” Eloff. It was my first time training with one of the big unions since my stint at the Bulls and there were big-name players trialling alongside me. Guys such as Kaya Malotana were also there vying for a spot in the team so the intensity was high and so was the skill level.
But it struck me as odd that Kaya was struggling to keep his place at the Lions, even though he was a World Cup Springbok – the first black African to play a Test match.
I’m not one to judge, but the Kaya I saw at those trials looked wounded and worn out by the system. He was seriously struggling for form and lacked the sharpness you’d expect from a Bok, especially a backline player with established credentials in midfield as well as in the wings. Kaya also went through the system without an agent, but to his credit he managed to fight for a salary on par with other international players when he signed for the Lions. At the end of the trial period my name was pencilled in the Lions’ provisional Currie Cup team. Sadly, Kaya’s wasn’t.
In total, I’d spent a month training with the Lions and a meeting was arranged with Loffie, where he would offer me a contract a week after making the trimmed squad. The Lions also paid me for the month I spent with them, an amount of about R8000, as some sort of stipend to cover my living costs.
The time came to put pen to paper, but at the meeting with Loffie I was given more nebulous reasons as to why my contract wasn’t ready. They hadn’t yet finalised my contractual figure or the length of the deal. They said they needed to get a clearer indication regarding how many of their players they would retain after the winter international window.
This was highly frustrating because it meant I would once again sit twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the Lions to make up their minds on whether they wanted me or not.
I was also uncomfortable with the fact that I would continue training with them, without the security of a contractual deal. If I was injured, they had the right to chuck me aside because, unless I had a contract, I wasn’t fully their responsibility.
By sheer coincidence, I happened upon an article in the Sowetan that stated that Stanley Raubenheimer had been appointed as the new Griffons coach. I had met Stanley at the Spoornet excellence programme and we got on well. So, while the Lions were dilly-dallying, I gave Stan a call, not expecting anything, just to hear what his plans were for the team.
After I told him about my plight, Stan right away asked me: “Why don’t you come play here?”
I said okay. I was free to join him because I hadn’t signed anything at the Lions. He told me that he would talk to the Griffons president, Ben Kellerman, and get back to me when he had something solid. So for a while I continued to train with the Lions, although I was still in limbo.
And then Stan called me with an offer of R20000 per month for the remaining six months of the year – an amount I had to fight for tooth and claw, unsuccessfully, at Griquas the year before. I immediately had the contract faxed to me, which I faxed back with my signature on it.
But then I had to face Loffie and tell him of my decision. I’m not a coward, so I wasn’t going to suddenly go AWOL – I wanted to meet him man-to-man to give him the news of my departure. I told him I accepted an offer from Griffons, one that I didn’t think I would get at the Lions, judging from the stipend I’d gotten after the month spent training with the union. I told him that the wait had been agonising for me and that I had to make a call on my future.
Loffie, who had become as difficult as Swys when it came to negotiating terms, warned me that I should be careful “not to burn bridges in rugby”. But I wasn’t burning any bridges; I had taken a decision on my future. I did everything the Lions asked of me in the time I spent with them and it still wasn’t enough for them to give me something tangible, but when I chose to leave, I was suddenly the bad guy? That was bullshit. They had all the time in the world to sign me, but chose to capitalise on my desperation. I left for Welkom not long after that chat.
Sibusiso Mjikeliso is editor of Kick Off magazine. He has written on rugby, cricket, football and tennis for international and SA newspapers, including the Daily Dispatch. This is his first book.
Being a Black Springbok – the Thando Manana Story (Pan MacMillan) is available at good bookstores nationwide and from takealot.com as a hardcopy or e-book