‘Players must plan for life after rugby’

Lions wing Jamba Ulengo believes it is crucial for players to continue driving the conversation around the importance of planning for life after rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

In 2016, Ulengo was selected for the Springboks’ end-of-year tour squad and made his Test debut against Wales in Cardiff, but that period of his life was soon to become bitter-sweet as he was continually plagued by pain related to a career-threatening knee injury continued.

At first, Ulengo was told he didn’t need to have surgery, with rehabilitation and pain medication seemingly the only way to manage the injury.

Suffering from patellar tendinopathy, more commonly known as jumper’s knee, Ulengo played through the pain until eventually realising he had little option but to take more serious action, which led him to the Alfredson Tendon Clinic in Sweden.

Once there, he was treated by famed orthopaedic and tendon specialist Håkan Alfredson, who conducted various examinations and procedures, before confirming that Ulengo would make a full recovery.

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Ulengo reflects on this period of his career and how he coped with the fears of a crippling injury.

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‘To go back a bit. As a kid you have a foundation of going to Sunday school and church but I think it was vital at that stage of my life, and it helped me later on. I just had to take a step back, to find who I really was. Are you simply a rugby player, or are you more holistically a better human being?

‘So, it was a very challenging period in my life but I was able to adjust to the situation because I could fall back on my relationship with the Lord. It really helped me to be not so depressed about the situation.

‘I saw it as a learning curve in my life and as an opportunity to develop. It also gave me a chance to study marketing through Unisa, to solidify the fact that if rugby was going to end, perhaps I could get a job in marketing and start afresh in something new.’

After managing to make a return to action, Ulengo then found himself moving from the Vodacom Bulls to the Cheetahs and finally to the Lions – all in the space of two years – and even experienced the uncertainty of being out of contract at one point.

‘If you try to sort these things out on your own you will go mad,’ he shares. ‘It’s very stressful as an individual, you have a family to take care of, and you have ambitions and goals. But I think the support system I had, my wife, my close friends and family, really helped me.

‘And most importantly, my faith, because you get into a dark space in your life, mentally, psychologically and physically. If you don’t have that support system you could even think of committing suicide, but I had good people around me during that period of my life and I am thankful to everyone who played a part.’

With this perspective, Ulengo says he is very much in favour of the renewed reminders that players need to equip themselves with other skills and plans for life after rugby.

‘Especially now, with the whole dynamic change we saw with Covid. It’s not what it used to be any more and I don’t think it ever will be. So the whole dynamic of relying on only one source of income, and maybe that’s the rugby contract, is no more.

‘It’s an important subject, and unions and players have to look into ways of focusing on a holistic approach where you are more of a person and not just a rugby player, whether that be through studying or other means.

‘We’ve seen with Covid, and unions cutting contracts, that things can change quickly, so you don’t want to be pressed into a corner where you are relying on only your rugby career.’

*The full version of this feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Craig Lewis