Mtembu: I haven’t fulfilled my potential

Former Sharks loose-forward and captain Tera Mtembu says he hopes a move to Major League Rugby with the New England Free Jacks can get the best out of him, writes DYLAN JACK.

Mtembu will move to the USA’s ever-expanding Major League Rugby tournament after signing a three-year contract with the Free Jacks. He has been added to the Free Jacks roster for the 2021 MLR season and will leave the Sharks after spending almost his entire professional career with the Durban-based side to date.

The 29-year-old captained the Sharks in the 2016 and 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby season as well as in the Currie Cup in 2014 and 2019.

‘I am really excited,’ Mtembu said. ‘Mostly, I am grateful that I got the opportunity. I have been at the Sharks for 10 years and they have moulded me into the player that I am. I am grateful to them for understanding the decision that I have made. I am just excited to learn and share knowledge and experience wherever I can and contribute wherever I can.

‘It definitely was a tough decision to leave the Sharks. Like I said, I have been here for 10 years, basically, I have only ever played for one team. So, it is going to be tough leaving Durban, this is my home. But it is really exciting at the same time to get the opportunity to move to Boston.

‘It is an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. Maybe that will get the best out of me. I am so excited. The MLR is growing. I am going to be able to be a part of that growth and share knowledge and learn at the same time. You can never stop learning as a player.’

Mtembu explained that the opportunity came about after he gave a close friend of his a lift from Durban to Pietermaritzburg late one evening.

‘I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, Zola Mazwi. He lives in Maritzburg and I was giving him a lift. He knew the high-performance manager for the Free Jacks, Tom Kindley.  So he connected us and we spoke within two days. The Free Jacks were interested and I connected him with my agent to work out a deal that would be worth it for both parties.

‘It is a nice story and proves that I was meant to be in Maritzburg at the right time,’  Mtembu said.

Unfortunately, the latter stages of Mtembu’s Sharks career were affected by a series of injuries. While he has managed to stay fit for the past two years, the increased competition in the Sharks’ loose-trio has seen him struggle to get consistent game time.

‘I have been injury-free for the last two years. Being in and out and being injured quite a lot here, I strongly believe that I haven’t fulfilled my potential,’ Mtembu said. ‘I just need time on the field and to stay injury-free. Maybe this could be an opportunity to almost revive my career to get the best out of me. I have briefly chatted to the coach but obviously have not had the chance to meet him. It’s a new challenge, something to look forward to and something to work hard for.

‘This is basically the second contract I have signed. I know I have extended contracts at the Sharks, but this is like the second team I have signed for since leaving high school. So it’s that feeling of excitement.’

Major League Rugby is heading into its fourth season, with the competition expanding to 13 teams with the inclusion of the Dallas Jackals and Los Angeles Giltinis. Mtembu’s Free Jacks team had their inaugural season in 2020, which was unfortunately cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other big names that have played or are busy playing in the USA include Beast Mtawarira, who had a one-year stint with the Old Glory DC this year, as well as Ma’a Nonu and Joe Pietersen, who both play for the San Diego Legion, who have also signed former England captain Chris Robshaw.

‘I am not too sure,’ Mtembu said on the standard of the league. ‘I know over the years there are a few South Africans that have been scattered around there. Obviously Beast was there, Ma’a Nonu was there and Joe Petersen also plays for San Diego. That same team has also signed Chris Robshaw.

‘So the league – in whatever stage it is now – is definitely growing. If it carries on like this, I think it has the potential to compete with other leagues in Europe. While I am unsure about the standard, I suppose I am just going to be going in at the deep end and finding out.’

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Dylan Jack