From the mag: Finding their voice

In these extraordinary times, rugby stars have increasingly begun to reveal the person behind the player, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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During the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, one of the more compelling and constructive byproducts that emerged from the crisis appeared to be a shift in perspective from players in the rugby world.

At the beginning of March, the on-field focus revolved around the Six Nations, Super Rugby and competitions that were on the go around the globe. Yet, the game ground to a halt in the face of Covid-19 and as time passed with indefinite inactivity, so players increasingly began to find their voice.

In the game of rugby – colloquially referred to as a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen – players by and large have mostly been renowned for keeping their true feelings to themselves.

Rugby, after all, remains a million miles away from the lurid showmanship displayed in boxing or various popular American sports, but with the increase in professionalism, many onlookers have also lamented the loss of personalities in the game.

Now and then, the likes of Eddie Jones or Michael Cheika have sent the media into overdrive with their inclination to shoot from the hip when talking to the media, but mostly the rugby public has become accustomed to PC responses and cliches such as ‘we’re taking it game by game’.

Of course, the sports media has its own reputation of searching for attention-grabbing angles or the so-called ‘clickbait’ headlines, but over the past few months there have been signs of players taking control of the narrative.

In lockdown, Springbok fullback Warrick Gelant fascinatingly emerged as the host of a YouTube series called ‘Breaking Chains’. As described, it was a show that aimed to break the chains of common challenges faced by professional athletes.

In the first episode, Gelant sat down with Proteas cricketer Reeza Hendricks, Springbok scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies and Blitzboks star Rosko Specman to discuss how they made it to the top, despite being regarded as ‘late bloomers’ when it came to being recognised for their talents.

Jantjies spoke openly about having to take a step back and play Varsity Shield rugby to rediscover his love for the game again, while Specman discussed how he kept his hopes up despite only making his Super Rugby debut at the age of 30.

In another episode, Gelant chatted to Lions wing Jamba Ulengo, Springbok prop Lizo Gqoboka and Bulls veteran Cornal Hendricks about their stories of overcoming injuries.

Hendricks, for example, detailed his battle with a career-threatening heart ailment … ‘I was told to go for a heart scan and after that the doctor told me I can’t play rugby any more. I was like, “Come on doc, I’ve just finished with my training, what do you mean?” … I asked if it was a joke, if Leon Schuster was behind the curtain, but he was serious. I remember just sitting there and I felt numb.’

Despite then trying to find the means to restart his career and believing he could continue playing, Hendricks explained how he couldn’t find a home at any team.

‘I remember crying every night, or when I was driving, the tears rolling down my cheeks. At the time I felt I couldn’t face the world because I couldn’t play rugby any more.’

However, Hendricks explained how he kept the faith and after four years of not playing competitive rugby, the former Bok wing finally received an offer from the Bulls.

And so it went, with players sharing their stories in lockdown conversations with teammates and friends that would likely not have been heard if not for the extraordinary times of the pandemic.

Conversations also fascinatingly shifted to financial challenges faced when their careers came under threat, and how they viewed and handled money – sometimes without the necessary know-how to do so prudently.

‘At the end of the day, rugby is only for 10 years or so, after that then what do you do?’ Ulengo asked. ‘Some people are so used to the hype and the aura that comes with playing rugby that you forget who you really are … After I earned my first Springbok cap, I felt like this was my chance, but then the injuries came and it was really tough …

‘You try to 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.’

Gqoboka went on to highlight the importance of finding mentorship or other career interests outside of rugby.

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

These were discussions that were immensely insightful and became particularly prevalent during this time of the coronavirus.

‘We are faced with this pandemic, we are staying at home and as a rugby players we are not earning the same income with all of our contracts being cut back,’ Ulengo said.

‘So we need to empower ourselves with regard to gaining another skill or networking with 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 our best foot forward for life after rugby.’

It all demonstrated a different, human side to players that the rugby public previously saw in the context of an 80-minute on-field performance.

Recently, former Springbok centre Waylon Murray, now director of sport at Westville High School, also went behind the mic to engage sports personalities in wide-ranging discussions in an entertaining video podcast series.

‘It started out as a way to keep our students and sportsmen engaged and stimulated during lockdown,’ he said in a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine. ‘I figured I could use my network in the game to add value to their lives through conversations with sports personalities, which includes players, coaches and media.’

During lockdown, I also took the opportunity to engage with sports stars in a series of Zoom chats, and found the interviewees to be more open and willing to discuss subjects that previously seemed to be off-limits when generally restricted to a limited time slot between matches or training sessions.

In one example, Sharks flyhallf Curwin Bosch opened up on how a change in mindset and approach has allowed him to play without the burden of self-imposed pressure.

‘I approached this year a bit differently. Previously I put a lot of pressure on myself to play for the Springboks and to get into the set-up, and I’d have sleepless nights if I wasn’t there.

‘It was affecting me in my daily life and everything around me,’ he candidly commented. ‘So I decided to approach this year differently and just say, “I’m going to go out and do my best for the Sharks. Play the best I can and try to make everyone around me look as good as I can and take it from there.”’

Sharks teammate and another Springbok, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, was another fascinating guest on the SA Rugby magazine YouTube channel as he openly discussed how he revived his career after finding himself in a dark place.

‘In 2019, to be deadly honest, I was down and out. By the end of the Currie Cup, I’d missed out on going to the World Cup, and if you want to call it depression, you can call it depression.

‘I just didn’t want to speak about rugby any more. I guess I was jealous in a way to not be there as the guys went on to win the World Cup. I knew I’d been there in the squad when things started out in 2018 under Rassie Erasmus, who invited me into the group.

‘But my mate told me to watch a documentary on Tiger Woods called The Rise and Fall. After watching that, mentally I came out fresh … I think it was his dad who said, “You will never find someone as mentally tough as Tiger.” I made a decision that day to forget about what had happened in the past, I decided to focus on the Sharks and the future.’

In May, outgoing Cheetahs hooker Joseph Dweba also spoke frankly about his journey in South African rugby, the unfair treatment he felt he’d received in the past and his desire to prove everyone wrong.

‘Sorry for my language, but I have been bulls*****d and f****d around so many times. I was getting a minute here, two minutes there. I never got clear game time,’ he said in one snippet from a candid interview with Jamie Lyall for Rugby Pass, referring to the mixed message he’d received when it came to game time at one point in his career.

It all added to the kaleidoscope of colour on a rugby script that previously had read as blandly as the game’s lengthy law book. Slowly but surely, players are finding their voices, and now, more than ever, they are worth listening to.

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Craig Lewis