The career of one of the most promising talents of the past decade, Inny-Christian Radebe, is on the precipice of a tragic end, writes SIBUSISO MJIKELISO.
Coming out of Craven Week in 2013, playing for the second year for the Golden Lions, Radebe, a black flyhalf with a bull’s-eye boot, was one of the hottest properties in town.
The former St Stithians College pupil took his talents to the Sharks after high school, beginning a wild rollercoaster ride. At first he dazzled as the UKZN Impi flyhalf and also stole the show at U19 level. But as senior honours trickled in, it quickly became apparent he was turning out to be one of the most mismanaged talents in recent history.
Despite getting his first Super Rugby cap at 22 and enjoying a full Currie Cup season at the Sharks at that point, Radebe suffered a meniscus tear in his knee that stymied his progress.
By the time he turned 25 in January, he had already spent a full year out of rugby (2018) and was roaming the club scene without a professional contract. Last year he released a ‘diss track’ where he rapped about some of the frustrations he endured within the system. More than anything, his lyrics sounded like a cry for help: ‘I fell victim to a system that was so corrupted; all these unions and them agents, they cannot be trusted … You still don’t pick me, starting to think it’s ’cause I’m f*cken black.’
Radebe explains in an exclusive interview with SA Rugby magazine: ‘I know this video maybe hurt a lot of people and annoyed some people but that was my intention – to create debate. I want people to start talking about issues that are just being swept under the rug. It’s been happening for so long that it’s time to actually start changing it.
‘It’s something that needed to be said, not just for me but also for so many players out there who are experiencing the same thing. I’ve made peace with the fact I may never play professional rugby again. It’s something I’ve prayed about and chatted to my family about and maybe it’s not God’s path for me.’
The 2018 sabbatical he reluctantly took was something that had never been explained, until now. After noticing the Sharks were signing a horde of flyhalfs – Curwin Bosch, Garth April and Robert du Preez – he decided, in a desperate search for game time, to roll the dice at his old union, the Lions. They were keen to bring him to Johannesburg that year but he had to pass medical examinations because of the knee surgery. An almighty bungle ensued that left Radebe without a contract at the Sharks or the Lions.
‘After I picked up a lateral meniscus injury against Border, I went for surgery,’ he says.
‘I came out fine and did all my rehab. I got back on to the field and played some good rugby. In 2017 I was lucky enough to make my Super Rugby debut for the Sharks. In that game I went up to take a high ball against the Jaguares and fell a bit awkwardly as I came down. I damaged the same spot that I had surgery on. That’s where the knee problem sort of started, round about April of 2017. I was laid off for three months but it was nothing serious; I didn’t need to go for more surgery.
‘Later in 2017 I came back stronger and I played a full Currie Cup season. The Lions referenced an old MRI scan I had when the injury was still at infant stage. That’s where everything got mixed up. According to that MRI I needed surgery, but it wasn’t a real reflection of the injury at the time. It didn’t really make sense. We tried to fight the case and get a current assessment from specialists about my knee. We spoke to the Sharks doctors to send a reference through to the Lions and I suppose it just all fell to ashes. I left the Sharks and the Lions didn’t take me. I was in limbo.’
The Lions have a reputation of being one of the most thorough unions in the country on the medical side. So if they turn you down, word spreads. Nobody wanted to touch Radebe. According to him, none of the other unions were remotely interested.
Club rugby and a bit of SuperSport Rugby Challenge action here and there was all he could manage. College Rovers gave him a lifeline in 2019 after a full year out.
When he landed back in Durban he found other former professionals who’d been spat out of the game prematurely, such as MB Lusaseni, who retired at just 26, Zee Mkhabela, Khaya Majola and Alcino Isaacs.
‘We got to chatting about their stories and how they ended up at Rovers and that sort of opened my eyes to the fact that so many good players are being lost in the system,’ Radebe says. ‘Guys who are 25, 26 years old, who, a year before, had been contracted to Western Province or the Lions or wherever it may be. Now they find themselves in the rugby wilderness. That opened my eyes to the reality that this is the situation we’re in. During the Murray Cup while at Rovers, I started writing [rhymes].’
However, he also admits he is not without blame in the way his career has unfolded.
‘I could have been a bit more professional, especially in my earlier years. Coming out of school, you like to branch out and see what’s out there and explore a little bit. I could have matured a little bit quicker and realised there’s only a short time and there are only a limited number of opportunities available.’
But with the 2020 season kicking off, he is willing to give it one last shot, one last unmitigated, unreserved swing at making it as a professional rugby player. He has thrown his lot in with Rovers, who want to make a massive charge at the Gold Cup this year, and, who knows, he might serve a reminder to unions about what a phenomenal talent he was and is.
The other side of the Inny Radebe story, is of course, the unions at the centre of it all – the Lions and the Sharks.
Sharks high performance manager Michael Horak, who coached Radebe at U21 level in Durban, said the player was driven by more than just rugby to leave the Sharks in 2017.
‘His brother was putting him under pressure to take up an employment opportunity with him,’ he said. ‘To my knowledge it was a carpentry business in Johannesburg that was doing really well and Innocent had to get that opportunity by a certain time if he wasn’t really progressing at a certain rate. I think the added pressure he was under to make it and speed things up was also maybe a factor in how things transpired.’
Horak had no doubt the Sharks had snapped up a fine talent in Radebe.
‘He had a calmness about himself and he executed certain things and solved certain problems quicker than other players.’
He claimed the Sharks did all they could to keep him in Durban during the transient time of Radebe’s negotiations with the Lions.
‘He had an issue with his knee,’ said Horak.
‘He said to us he had an opportunity at the Lions and his main motivation was more game time. His agent assured us the Lions had offered him a contract and everything was in place. We released him from his contract and, to my amazement, they said there was a hiccup when he failed his medical.’
Bart Schoeman, who was the Lions high performance manager at the time, said Radebe was ill-advised during his time at the Sharks.
‘He’s not been looked after; he’s not been cared for and he picked up a couple of injuries,’ he said.
‘I don’t think he was managed well because they could have picked up the issue, which became big issues later on, regarding his knee. We wanted him to stay at the Lions after high school. We felt he was one of ours. We had a huge drive in trying to keep our local boys here, the likes of Wandisile Simelane and Tyrone Green. He also didn’t get proper opportunities because there were players they were favouring.’
Schoeman said he wasn’t pointing fingers but the players the Sharks contracted shut the door in Radebe’s face. But things didn’t go swimmingly at the Lions, either, upon medical review.
‘Our doctors identified serious structural issues in his knee,’ Schoeman said. ‘They didn’t want to clear him because they felt it was a high-risk situation.’