Mtembu’s leading the way

Tera Mtembu is relishing the role of Sharks captain in this year’s Currie Cup, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.

There is something endearingly bashful about the way Lubabalo Mtembu explains how he got the nickname ‘Tera’, the moniker by which the Sharks Currie Cup captain is known.

His explanation has the same ring of self-deprecation as when Tendai Mtawarira shyly admitted that he was a playground bully at primary school level to earn the name ‘Beast’.

‘I guess I was bit of a terror when I was younger but as I grew older I changed, and “terror” no longer applied. I have to admit I modified it to “Tera”, which is pretty much meaningless,’ the 23-year-old says coyly.

Mtembu was born and raised in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape and went on to captain Dale College. While he was at the school he grew to hero-worship two of the 1st XV captains: Keegan Daniel (when Mtembu was at U13 level), who would later captain him in his debut at the Sharks, and then Bandise Maku, who went on to feature for the Bulls at hooker.

‘During this time at high school I was an avid Western Province and Stormers fan, I have to admit, but life took its course and I ended up at the Sharks. This was thanks to me being awarded a bursary to the Sharks Academy after the 2008 Kearsney College Easter Festival, where Dale College had featured.’

His roots remain in King William’s Town, where his father is a retired headmaster and his mother still teaches.

Mtembu had only been at the Sharks Academy for six months when he was selected for the SA U20 team and then played for the SA Sevens side in 2010-11. He was a member of the Sharks U21 side before making his senior debut in 2012.

And in 2014 the Sharks Currie Cup side has found itself starting just about from scratch after the host of call-ups to the Boks and the departure of loose forwards and former captains in Daniel and Jean Deysel to overseas clubs.

The Sharks needed a new captain, as well as new loose forwards, and Tera was the comfortable choice for director of rugby Jake White, in conjunction with Currie Cup head coach Brad Macleod-Henderson.

‘I enjoyed it when I captained Dale College but being offered the Sharks captaincy was a huge honour I have embraced with a great deal of responsibility,’ the mild-mannered flank says. ‘It takes a lot of getting used to. Suddenly you have to make sure you are planning ahead with what you are going to say to the guys, and with what decisions you are going to make on the field, but mostly you feel the need to lead by example. That is what captaincy essentially means to me – making the right decisions on the field and then leading the way.’

'Being offered the Sharks captaincy was a huge honour I have embraced with a great deal of responsibility'

The Sharks’ Currie Cup group comprises mostly younger players with a sprinkling of older heads such as Odwa Ndungane and Jacques Botes, and Mtembu says the team has responded favourably to his leadership. At the time of writing, the Sharks had beaten Griquas (away), the Pumas (at home), and the Cheetahs (away). Mtembu was faultless in his decision-making, including changing the game plan against the Pumas from a ball-in-hand approach in the final quarter to a more familiar lineout-mauling game which produced two tries and the bonus point.

‘I’m living a dream captaining this team,’ says Mtembu. ‘I captained my school team and wondered if I would ever get to captain a major team. And it has happened, but so much sooner than I thought. These are exciting times for the union and for myself, although I know I have a lot to learn.

‘Jacques and Odwa will be there and I will tap into their knowledge and experience – even our CEO John Smit has said his door is always open should I need advice.’

Indeed, Smit says of his new captain: ‘It is an exciting time for us and Tera. It is a good sign that I can see he is nervous about the challenge, because it means he understands the magnitude of the task he has taken on. I’ve made it clear to him it is not a fun job.

‘He has the respect of his peers, he’s young enough to know he has a lot to learn, but he is willing to do that. He’s made huge progress since making his debut, and he’s represented himself quite capably on the field at all times.

‘The challenge now is to be able to balance that performance on the field with the ability to suss out the feeling of the team and communicate diplomatically with the referee. We believe he has that in him and we will support him in any way we can.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt