Feature: Manjezi’s meteoric rise

Sintu Manjezi has all the attributes to build on a successful first season with the Vodacom Bulls, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Fresh from winning the Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup double with the Bulls, Sintu Manjezi will be spending the next few months on the sidelines after damaging his knee cartilage and anterior cruciate ligament. The 25-year-old lock was injured during the first half of the Currie Cup final against the Sharks, but continued to play on until he was substituted on the 60-minute mark.

Manjezi had just broken into the Bulls’ starting lineup, after completing a move from the Cheetahs, and yet he refuses to be dejected or distracted by such an setback.

‘I am a bit chilled about it, but also slightly frustrated because I am going to be out for a while now,’ Manjezi tells SA Rugby magazine.

‘It is quite a bit of a shock as well because they strapped it up, I continued to play and wasn’t really thinking about it.

‘When I came off, I was limping a bit and was thinking that it was probably a bit of bone bruising because you can sometimes get that when you jump and land in the lineouts. I was shocked that it was quite a lot worse than that.’

The good news is that Manjezi has never been one to back down on a challenge, nor is this the first hurdle he has had to overcome in his career.

Born and raised in East London, the former St Andrew’s College pupil was recruited by Robbie Kempson to join the EP Kings academy straight out of school in 2013.

It was at the academy that Kempson helped Manjezi hone his talents and shape himself into a robust lock who could play the enforcer role for his team.

‘Robbie guided me a lot in terms of how I had to develop as a player,’ Manjezi says. ‘When I arrived, I think I was more of an on-the-ball player focused more on carrying, passing and being able to use my hands a bit. My defensive side of the game needed work, as did calling the lineouts, my involvement in breakdowns and being a bit more physical.

‘I enjoyed carrying and running like a back, but high school rugby is like that — you want to carry. The tackling and defensive work, that’s what I developed at the Kings.’

In two short years, Manjezi went from playing for the EP U19 team, to co-captaining their Currie Cup side in the qualification series, to making a dream Super Rugby debut for the Kings in July 2016.

‘I was a bit surprised, because the EP Currie Cup team wasn’t training with the Kings Super Rugby team. I felt that with two games left in the Super Rugby season, I wasn’t going to get it. I was targeting 2017 and was hoping to be involved in the Super Rugby squad and take it from there. When I got the call, I was very shocked and called my parents and friends. My mom is always the most excited out of all of them. She was very proud of me.’

However, Manjezi’s career took a sharp and unexpected turn in 2017. Despite being named in the Kings’ Super Rugby squad, he did not play a single game before it was announced that the Kings would no longer be a part of the competition as part of a decision to reduce the number of participating teams to 15.

‘I remember doubting myself because I wasn’t getting any opportunities, coming off the year when I made my debut. What I expected was to get a couple more caps to build on. To not get any was tough and I remember being frustrated and doubting myself. There was a lot of uncertainty at that time.’

As his contract with the Kings was coming to an end and there was no clarity over their Pro14 Rugby participation, Manjezi was offered the opportunity to restart at Griquas, which he reluctantly accepted.

‘The decision was tough. I was in a Super Rugby squad and thought that anything could happen if I trained hard enough. But I felt that there were more benefits if I moved to Kimberley and joined Griquas. I was very hesitant though. I needed game time. That’s the most important thing for any player.

‘I had a two-year contract with Griquas and I started doing my economics degree. I wasn’t too keen on pushing myself away from rugby. I would always have had something to regret and would be asking myself “what if”. At the time, my agent told me about the connection between Griquas and the Cheetahs. If you play well for Griquas, you will definitely get an opportunity with the Cheetahs. That was the mentality that I was in at the time.’

Manjezi settled quickly in Kimberley, helping Griquas into the final of the 2018 Provincial Rugby Challenge. He was named as the team’s Forward of the Year.

‘I met some amazing people at Griquas — like Kyle Steyn and Andre Swarts. A bit of influence from them aligned with what I wanted to do.  I got the opportunity to work hard on my game. I used to analyse the players who I saw myself as being. Benedict Chanakira, who was the Griquas analyst, pushed me to do that a lot. He made me watch clips of how other players are playing and try to get that into my game. He really drove me and with the influences I had from my friends, it worked out nicely.’

As promised, a move to the Cheetahs, then coached by Franco Smith, emerged and Manjezi signed a contract with the Bloemfontein side after the 2018 Currie Cup.

His time in the City of Roses gave him his first exposure to the Pro14 and a reunion with his old mentor when the Cheetahs faced the Kings in the tournament.

Manjezi chuckles when he is reminded of Kempson’s angry reaction to his niggly play during a match in Port Elizabeth in 2020.

‘If you look at the best No 4 locks in the world, that’s what you have to do. You have to get physical and get under your opponent’s skin. I have learned a bit about that here at the Bulls — we say that it’s about being a silent bully. Back then I was really loud and trying to cause stuff, but there is a better way to do it. It’s about putting in a dominant hit, a strong carry, running hard at someone. You can do that and get the same effect rather than just being loud.

‘The funny thing is that I spoke to Robbie afterwards and I just chirped him, saying he can’t complain when he was the one who brought this out of me while I was at the Kings. I still have a very good relationship with Robbie and spoke to him a few weeks ago. I am grateful for everything he has done.’

The Cheetahs also gave Manjezi the opportunity to win his first major piece of silverware when they claimed the Currie Cup title in 2019.

‘It was amazing to win the Currie Cup. It really was,’ Manjezi says. ‘I remember Franco driving that this was our opportunity to prove ourselves. Even though we were in a different competition, we can still prove that we were on a level playing field and still give these guys a run for their money. That was our drive in the whole competition.’

A move to the Bulls, who had come under Jake White’s stewardship, then emerged and while Manjezi had fought his way into the hearts of the Bloemfontein faithful, this was an opportunity for growth that he simply could not turn down.

‘The prestige that comes with working with a coach like Jake — he has won it all. He has won it at the highest level. He has won everywhere he has been. He has worked with some really good locks — just think of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha at Springboks level — I was hoping he could teach me things and how to go about my trade, helping me achieve my goal of playing at the highest level.

‘It was about making that transition, that next step up. It’s about proving myself at the highest level. Honestly, I enjoyed being at the Cheetahs. I loved their type of play, the people, the city; but I think you always want to develop and the only way to do that is to put yourself through new challenges and test yourself at new levels.’

While it took Manjezi a bit of time to adjust to the Bulls’ style and what was required from him, he put in the hard work behind the scenes and was rewarded with starts in the Currie Cup semi-final against the Lions and final against the Sharks.

‘The final was just a rollercoaster of emotions. I was playing quite well and then I got injured and we had to come off the field because of lightning. My knee was starting to swell and I was limping in the change room. It was about being there for the team and putting my body on the line.

‘Jake White came to me and said that I can be a presence in the lineout, just try and get back on to the field until at least the 60th minute. My knee was giving in slightly but I just kept fighting. We were down at the time and I didn’t want to go off until we were safe.’

That fighting spirit, fostered during the toughest parts of Manjezi’s career so far, is exactly what is going to carry him through his recovery from his latest setback.

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Craig Lewis