Wandile Mjekevu returned to the Sharks a different player after a two-year stint with Perpignan, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Mjekevu has undergone a considerable transformation as a player and person over the past couple of years. He’s returned to South Africa and the Sharks with a different outlook on life, and a new perspective on the game.
Identified as a future star from a young age, Mjekevu enjoyed a meteoric rise after school, making his Super Rugby debut for the Lions as a teenager in 2010. He also featured for the Junior Boks at the World Championship in Argentina that year. As he reflects, it all happened rather quickly.
‘When I look back, it was a bit of a blur really. I was obviously thrilled to receive the opportunities I did, and I felt comfortable, even at Super Rugby level; it didn’t feel as if I’d been thrown in at the deep end.’
However, from the highs of his breakthrough year, things changed almost as quickly for the versatile back.
Having carried a knee injury for much of the season, Mjekevu began to battle to maintain his form, and just a year after he’d made 10 Super Rugby appearances, he found himself playing for the Lions’ Vodacom Cup and U21 sides.
In 2012, he moved back to his home town of Durban where he hoped to make his mark with the Sharks, but again he failed to break into the senior set-up. By 2013, Mjekevu was plying his trade for club side College Rovers. He was disillusioned and lacking in confidence.
‘I can look back and say I’m really grateful for those experiences as they taught me a lot about myself as a player and person. But I have to admit it wasn’t easy. I had simply lost confidence as a player and even with the backing of the coaches, I just couldn’t quite get back to the form I was looking for. I’d lost that belief in myself.’
Yet Mjekevu would receive a lifeline from an unlikely source when he took the opportunity to join French club Perpignan.
‘The timing was perfect; I’d got to the stage where it hadn’t really worked out at the Lions or Sharks, and I needed to do something different,’ he says. ‘To be able to go overseas and experience playing in France was an absolute blessing. From day one I felt at home, and got opportunities to play.’
Although the seven-time Top 14 champions were relegated at the end of the 2013-14 season, dropping out of the top flight for the first time in the professional era, Mjekevu proved to be one of their shining lights.
‘It was a real disappointment to be relegated, but I was just focused on playing well for Perpignan, and contributing to the club. And I think a few of us then felt the onus was on us to try to help get the club back up to the Top 14.’
And although Mjekevu continued to impress, scoring 10 tries in 18 appearances during the 2014-15 Pro D2, Perpignan ultimately failed to earn promotion as they lost out to Agen in the play-offs.
The Sharks, meanwhile, had been monitoring Mjekevu’s progress, and saw a chance to bolster their backline before this year’s Currie Cup.
‘I didn’t really want to play another season in the French second division, and I’d heard there might be some interest from the Sharks,’ Mjekevu says. ‘I felt the time was right to come back home. I was blown away by the environment at the Sharks, where a lot had changed. It felt like a conducive environment to work hard and be rewarded. It’s a family-orientated, happy environment, and I’ve felt very comfortable since coming back.’
However, when SA Rugby magazine caught up with Mjekevu, the Sharks had just lost their fourth Currie Cup game and had dropped to fifth on the log. The 24-year-old admitted it had been a challenging start to their campaign.
‘We’ve had some disappointing results, but I feel that with a number of young players being given the backing to play, we will benefit from the experience that is being gained. The one thing I can say is we haven’t stopped working; we know we’ve been struggling and there’s pressure and expectation from the public. But we’ll never give up, and credit must go to the leaders for keeping the squad together and positive during these times.’
Mjekevu was given the opportunity to start in six out of the Sharks’ first eight games, featuring at centre and on the wing, while he produced a Man of the Match performance against the Pumas in round five, scoring two well-taken tries.
Reflecting on that start to his second stint with the Sharks, he says he felt he was a completely different player to the one who left Durban’s shores in mid-2013.
‘I feel as if my skills improved during my time in France. I also learned to be more physical and I bulked up a bit. Coupled with my speed, hopefully that will allow me to be able to contribute more to the Sharks.
‘I felt at times [during the start of the Currie Cup] that my performances weren’t always up to the standards I set for myself. But it will come with time. I’m still finding my way and working out my role in a new team, and personally and as a squad, we can then take stock after the Currie Cup.’
As our conversation winds down, the abiding impression Mjekevu leaves is one of an unassuming individual who has grown immeasurably from the life lessons and experiences he has gained on and off the field. And as a ‘reborn’ rugby player, one can’t help but feel he could well still become the star he always looked destined to be.
‘I can’t put into words how much I feel I’ve matured as a player and person over the past couple of years,’ he acknowledges. ‘It was such a learning experience overseas, and I feel like I’ve gained so much and changed for the better.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine