Tonderai Chavhanga was struggling physically and financially when Jake White offered him one last chance to revive his career, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
Tonderai Chavhanga vividly recalls the first time he rolled into the Kings Park parking lot late last year in his modest little car and parked alongside his teammates’ big 4x4s. With it came a realisation that a gambler’s dice had rolled up next to his car.
This was the last shot in his rugby career. He knew it. They talk about race horses picking up injuries, but the fastest man in South African rugby has an injury for every record he has clocked on the stop watch.
Jake White remembers Chavhanga’s return well. He should. It was because of White that the six-time Springbok was being given this soiree in to the infamous Last Chance Saloon.
The 29-year-old had just been released by the Cheetahs after a season spent entirely on the rehab table and not once in a playing jersey. But he had occasionally been in touch with White – who had given him his Springbok debut when he scored those marvellous six tries against Uruguay – from as far afield as Canberra, and the Sharks director of rugby had told him not to give up hope. Whatever you say about White, good or bad, he never breaks a bridge with a player.
White picks up the story: ‘When I came to the Sharks, I heard about how Tonderai was struggling, physically and financially, and I offered him a lifeline. There was no basis on which to offer him a contract. We offered to give him free rehab and every chance of making a comeback, but we would not pay him a cent.’
Chavhanga said the offer was like the wave of a lifesaver’s flag to a drowning man who does not know how much longer he can tread water, and he happily accepted.
'We offered to give him free rehab and every chance of making a comeback, but we would not pay him a cent’ – Jake White
Sadly, it initially lasted just two weeks before he broke down again. But again he refused to give up, and eight games into Super Rugby, White gave Chavhanga a shot off the bench in the match against the Cheetahs in Durban. He played well and was all smiles … until a cruel ankle tap stiffened up a hamstring, and he was off the field once more.
But this time the Sharks offered him not only rehab but also a small contract. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give the wing even more hunger to come back.
‘I just felt he had something nobody else in our squad could better – pure speed – and I felt if we were patient enough, we would get reward for persevering with Tonderai when no other union would give him a chance,’ says White.
The reward for White came in the Sharks’ qualifier play-off against the Highlanders when Chavhanga, on as a substitute, was fed a ball on the blindside by hooker Bismarck du Plessis, and sped down the touchline for a try in an exhibition of blistering pace that won the Sharks the game.
He has now been picked for the Sharks’ Currie Cup squad, is earning a salary, is injury-free, and will forever remain indebted to White for taking a chance on him when nobody else would give him the time of day.
But how did it come to this for a player who was on top of the world after scoring that record glut of tries against the admittedly poor South American team? How did he go from being centre of attention to broken down, virtually unemployable, and wondering how he was going to feed his family, in the space of a few short years?
‘The truth is that he is the rugby playing equivalent of a race horse,’ says White. ‘He is that fast and that means more fast muscle sinew that can tear when put under strain. He has just been bloody unlucky.’
The former Stormers man followed White to the Lions in 2008 but spent an entire year on the sidelines. He barely played for the Lions in 18 months at the union.
He decided to try his luck overseas with the Newport Gwent Dragons, and he had better fortune.
‘It was a fresh start and I didn’t have this “injury” tag attached to me. I had two relatively happy years in Wales,’ says Chavhanga.
But he wanted to come home and tried his luck with the Sharks. He was carrying a minor knee injury and just as he was coming right, he suffered a freakish hyper-extension of the knee that put him out of rugby for a year (and out of contract). Chavhanga used some of the last of his savings to pay for treatment in an oxygen chamber. He had no medical aid, putting faith in his body to heal itself.
‘I thought my career was over. My heart was aching. The Cheetahs took a chance on me but it didn’t work out, and then came the texts from Jake. I had known him since he saw me playing for Prince Edward School in Harare.
‘I told him I was going to have to retire but he said he would do me a favour … no sympathy, no emotion, no pay, just come to Durban and let’s see what we can do for you. It’s up to you to prove you can still do it.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine