Former Lions and Sharks wing Wandile Mjekevu has become a fan favourite at Perpignan, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
The first thing to say about Wandile Mjekevu is how courteous he is.
When SA Rugby magazine first caught up with the lightning-quick left wing, he’d just landed in Paris after a long flight back from South Africa. He wasn’t at his brightest, as he himself admitted, but he was still happy to talk and offer an articulate insight into his eventful career to date.
So let’s wind the clock back a few years, to 2010, when a 19-year-old Mjekevu set Super Rugby on fire, scoring a hat-trick of tries against the Chiefs in the Super 14. The world seemed his, not to mention a Springbok cap, but alas, life didn’t go according to plan. As one South African newspaper, The Mercury, put it recently, Mjekevu ‘got lost in the rugby wilderness’. Harsh? He doesn’t think so.
‘I think that’s a fair way of putting things,’ he says, back in France after taking advantage of November’s Top 14 break to visit home to see family and friends. ‘I was so young when I played Super Rugby in 2010. I was quite happy with the way I played, even if the team didn’t do that well, but I was carrying an injury for much of that season. After the 2010 Junior World Championship, I had my knee treated and when I got back to the Lions, John Mitchell had come in as coach. I fell out of favour, got injured again and things just didn’t work out.’
In 2012 Mjekevu moved to Durban but hopes of a second wind with the Sharks came to nothing and he ended up playing in the Vodacom Cup.
‘It was difficult,’ he says of his stint at the Sharks. ‘I’d played Super Rugby at 19 and had to go back a level. People expected me to dominate but it was hard. I was playing a different style, a different competition.’
Mjekevu felt himself wasting away in Durban. He lost his love for the game and rugby ‘became just a job’. At the end of 2012 it was clear the Sharks weren’t going to offer him a new deal, so what next? Not even the perennially optimistic Mjekevu expected the subsequent chain of events.
‘My agent proposed a move to Perpignan,’ he explains. ‘I’d always wanted to play in France at some stage in my career, although I hadn’t planned on it for a few more years. But I thought “why not?”’
So Mjekevu packed his bags and arrived in Perpignan in time for the start of the 2013-14 season. Other than learning the language (a challenge he’s tackling, though it doesn’t come easy), Mjekevu had no problem adjusting to his new environment.
‘I’ve lived away from home from a young age so I’ve always been quite independent,’ he says. ‘Of course, leaving a country behind, as opposed to a city, was tough, and there were growing pains, but I’m just loving living in France. It’s a beautiful country and my team-mates have been tremendous.’
Mjekevu namechecks a few of his new buddies: a host of world-class talent such as Wales fullback James Hook, France flyhalf Camille Lopez and David Marty, a classy centre with 37 French caps.
Among such exalted company, Mjekevu is more than holding his own, and his two-try display in the 31-14 European Cup win over Edinburgh made headlines in France. It’s not just his pace and his eye for the tryline that has won the hearts of the locals, it’s his infectious enthusiasm for the game he graces so elegantly.
‘I think I’ve always played the game with a smile on my face,’ says Mjekevu. ‘That smile disappeared a while ago but it’s back now and I’m really enjoying my rugby.’
Mjekevu was the subject of a phone-in on a recent radio show in the south of France, and he listened patiently as one excited Perpignan fan after another came on the airwaves to sing his praises in broken English. It was a touching moment, and proof that Mjekevu’s move to France was the best rugby decision he’s ever made.
‘It’s been overwhelming,’ he says of his reception in Perpignan.
As for South Africa, well, he’ll return one day for sure, but when that might be is anyone’s guess. He’s still only 22, so there’s plenty of time to promote that Baby Boks cap into a senior one.
‘I have aspirations to play international rugby,’ he says, when asked about representing South Africa. A-ha! exclaims SA Rugby magazine, seizing on the answer as if it were a ball popped out of the scrum. So does that mean he might one day play for France? He laughs.
‘You noticed that I chose my words carefully! I’m only playing in my first season in France so I don’t want to alienate anyone at this stage.’
Wandile Mjekevu – clever, as well as courteous.
– This article first appeared in the January-February 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine