Oupa Mohoje had a dream 2014 season but almost quit the game two years before, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Inventor Thomas Edison said it best: ’Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.’
In 2012, this is where Teboho ‘Oupa’ Mohoje found himself.
As a 22-year-old who would soon have to fend for himself, Mohoje sought security. For a long time he had thought that would come from his rugby. Born in the eastern Free State but schooled in Bloemfontein, Mohoje made a name for himself as a bruising blindside flank at HTS Louis Botha. He’d followed the path trod by so many provincial and international players – Academy Week, Craven Week, Free State U19 and U21. And yet, a clear future in the game had not yet materialised. Perhaps it was time to pack it in, put his head down, get his degree and think of a life away from the game, as his father had suggested.
‘I was already 22 years old and my rugby career seemed to be going a bit slow. So I was going to shift my focus to my studies and then, once I was done, I could go back to rugby if that was what I still wanted.’
The eldest son in a family of academics, Mohoje understood that a degree might provide him with what rugby couldn’t.
All that changed, however, when Michael Horak took over as coach of Shimlas. His first move was to name Mohoje captain, the first black captain in the university’s 111-year history. This sparked something in Mohoje, and spurred him on to greater heights.
‘Things changed quite a bit when I was named captain,’ he admits. ‘It gave me the confidence, the belief I could make something out of rugby.’
‘When I met him, I could see he had lost a bit of the fire, a bit of his love for the game,’ recalls Horak. ‘He had all this talent and ability, but he seemed lost. He embraced the leadership role, and it seemed to motivate him.’
Things happened quickly for Mohoje after that. Revitalised, he went on to be named the Player that Rocks in the 2013 Varsity Cup.
‘After being named player of the tournament, I realised that this is possible, things were happening for me. And that drove me to keep working, to keep pushing myself.’
The Cheetahs coaching staff were aware of Mohoje’s ability, but reluctant to throw him straight into Super Rugby, so he stayed with Shimlas for the early part of 2014. However, after injuries thinned out the Cheetahs’ loose-forward ranks, Mohoje got his chance.
He made his debut off the bench against the Chiefs, but it was his stunning try against the Crusaders that earmarked him as one for the future. That future arrived sooner than anyone expected when, after just 379 minutes of Super Rugby, Mohoje became a Springbok. There have been quicker ascendancies to Test level, but after Saru’s Strategic Transformation Plan was leaked to the press, Mohoje’s selection came under scrutiny.
South Africa has a chequered past when it comes to the selection and development of black players, especially black flankers. Thando Manana, Kabamba Floors and Solly Tyibilika were all shoehorned into the Springbok set-up, and they struggled with the weight of expectation. Their Bok careers were shortlived. Tyibilika’s selection came on the back of Currie Cup success with the Sharks, but he was still developing physically, and was underprepared for the rigours of Test rugby. Luckily for Mohoje, his physical prowess made the transition easier than it might have been.
After seemingly having fallen down the pecking order during the overseas leg of the Rugby Championship, Mohoje was handed his first start for the match against the Wallabies at Newlands. Coach Heyneke Meyer maintained that his selection of Mohoje was based on the range of skills he brought to the team, not the colour of his skin.
‘I was selected here on merit and that’s what the coach told me so I don’t really have much to say,’ said Mohoje at the time.
He would prove that with an assured performance, which he repeated against the All Blacks a week later. His development continued during the end-of-year tour, starting three of the four Tests. As rookie international seasons go, Mohoje’s was solid, if not spectacular. However, it has laid the platform for him to reach much greater heights in 2015 – a World Cup year.
He has returned fresh for the new season, where he has been working on his conditioning with the Cheetahs. Coach Naka Drotské believes work is still required on Mohoje’s physicality, especially on defence. As for the rest of his game, Drotské is pleased with his development.
‘He will be a key player for us during Super Rugby. We’ll be looking to use his explosiveness as a ball-carrier. We’ll use him more at lineout time – the way he jumps, he’s one of the few players in the world who can still outjump opponents.’
With a World Cup on the horizon, Mohoje would be forgiven for looking further down the line, but for now his focus is on the Cheetahs’ Super Rugby campaign.
‘We owe our supporters quite big after last year, when we let ourselves down. My focus is on Super Rugby – if I do things right with the Cheetahs, the rest will follow.’
The rugby year will culminate at Twickenham on 31 October and, while Mohoje and the Boks have a long way to go before that point, the dream is still very much alive. One thing is for certain, though, Mohoje has been vindicated in his decision to give the game one last chance.
– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine