Gqoboka, Ulengo: Rugby players need mentorship

Springboks Lizo Gqoboka and Jamba Ulengo have emphasised the importance of players finding mentorship or career interests outside rugby.

The duo appeared alongside Springbok and Vodacom Bulls wing Cornal Hendricks in the third episode of ‘Breaking Chains’, hosted by Springbok and Stormers fullback Warrick Gelant.

Watch: Breaking Chains with Warrick Gelant 

All three of Gqoboka, Ulengo and Hendricks have seen their careers impacted by long-term injuries which have forced them on to the sidelines for prolonged periods of time and even threatened to end their sporting careers.

In 2018, Gqoboka damaged a tendon in his toe while playing against the Sharks in a Vodacom Super Rugby match. The injury prevented him from making his Springbok debut and kept him on the sidelines until the following year.

Meanwhile, after a breakthrough year when he made his Springbok debut in 2014, Hendricks was forced to retire in 2015 after receiving the news that he had a heart defect. Following four years where the highest level that he played was for club-rugby side Roses United, Hendricks made a successful comeback in the colours of the Bulls in 2019.

Ulengo, too, was thrown a curveball in his career when after making his Bok debut in 2016, diagnosed with patellar tendinopathy – also known as jumper’s knee. The injury kept him out of rugby for the next couple of years and he lost his contract with the Bulls. Ulengo had to travel to Sweden to get the injury corrected and only last year made a full-time return to senior rugby with the Lions.

Speaking on the YouTube show, Ulengo said that with rugby being a very short career, players need to utilise every opportunity to build an off-field career for themselves.

‘At the end of the day, rugby is only for 10 years, after that then what do you do?’ Ulengo also asks in one clip from episode three of ‘Breaking Chains’. ‘Some people are so used to the hype, and the aura that comes with playing rugby that you forget who you really are. When that is gone, some people go into depression because they don’t know who they really are.

‘That period when I was injured, which was the year after I made my first Springbok cap, I felt like this was my chance and I had been waiting for that opportunity for a while but then the injuries came and it was really tough. You try and keep motivated and positive, but we are all human. You get to a point where every door you want to open is shut, every call you want to make for help is closed. Then you really have to sit down and look at your situation and reposition yourself to ride the wave of trials and tribulations.

‘We need to put ourselves in a position to empower ourselves with regard to gaining another skill, or networking with other business people. We are fortunate to have that opportunity to meet big business people, but don’t always know how to utilise those opportunities to the fullest, whereby we can network and put out best foot forward for life after rugby.’

Gqoboka added that he felt that players were not always adequately prepared to make the most of the off-field opportunities and make contacts in the business world at corporate events.

‘I feel that we are sometimes in a bubble, everything comes – I’m not going to say easily – but early in your life,’ Gqoboka said. ‘When you are 21 or 22, you can be representing your country and getting millions into your bank account. The money is there, but your character is not up there yet.

‘I have seen when we go on golf days meeting the sponsors, guys just want to go home, they are irritated – sometimes understandably because they have come from a tough session or the team is losing – but they are oblivious to their surroundings, not knowing or being aware of the people and the influence around you as well. Most of the time, we hang around such powerful people that we can learn from but maybe it’s a matter of not knowing how to tap into that or how to network with those people.

‘Personally, I thought maybe we don’t want to and prefer to stick in our comfort zone,’ he added. ‘There are opportunities to ask questions from someone else who is in the corporate world, someone who is in the mining industry or agricultural industry.’

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