The ‘Godfather of tendons’ saved Jamba Ulengo’s rugby career, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
In 2016, Bulls wing Jamba Ulengo was selected for the Springboks’ end-of-year tour squad and made his Test debut against Wales in Cardiff. However, he remembers that year more for the career-threatening knee injury that resulted in an uncertain future.
‘At first, I was told I didn’t need to have surgery; I only had to follow the correct rehabilitation for the knee to heal,’ Ulengo tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘But the pain had become unbearable, so much so that I could play one week, but not the next. I couldn’t even train the day after a match.
‘I only managed to carry on because I was taking lots of painkillers. But during the Bok tour, I realised I wasn’t making any progress and the medication was just offering temporary pain relief.
‘After chatting to Bulls team doctor Herman Rossouw in Pretoria, I saw a few specialists nationwide. They all confirmed I was suffering from patellar tendinopathy, but said that in my case there was no remedy.’
Patellar tendinopathy, commonly known as jumper’s knee, is caused by the overstressing or overuse of the knee joints. Ulengo was told the only way he could continue playing in the short term was to keep using pain medication. But the doctors warned that if he went that route, the injury would be aggravated, forcing his knee joints to snap, which would put an end to his playing career.
As his family’s primary financial provider, Ulengo felt he had to take the risk.
‘After the last specialist had given me the same bad news, I went home and cried,’ he says. ‘I wondered how I was going to earn an income and provide for my family. I had no choice but to take the pain meds and hope my knee would hold up.’
Rossouw’s rehabilitation programme for Ulengo had worked up until the 2017 Currie Cup campaign when he suffered a setback. The knee joints had been pushed to their limit and the pain was intense.
‘I was preparing myself for the worst, but Herman refused to give up. He believed that somewhere out there someone could help. I didn’t share that belief,’ he admits. ‘There had been so many lows and setbacks over the past two years and every time it looked like there was a way back, it turned out to be another dead end.’
Rossouw’s extensive search led him to Professor Håkan Alfredson, a Swedish orthopaedic and tendon specialist who has worked on some of the world’s top sportsmen, including Rafael Nadal, Owen Hargreaves, Kevin Pietersen, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Alfredson’s congested schedule does not allow for impromptu consultations, with appointments having to be made months in advance. But after explaining the gravity of the situation, Rossouw managed to get Ulengo an appointment with him in January this year.
Travelling on a wing and a prayer, Ulengo and Rossouw made the journey to the Alfredson Tendon Clinic in Umeå in Sweden. Once there, Alfredson instantly lived up to his status as the ‘Godfather’.
Having reviewed Ulengo’s history and examined his knee with ultrasound, Alfredson found that blood vessels had formed at the tip of the kneecap, where there were also irregular bone outgrowths that caused the pain.
‘I went through a set of examinations the first day and the procedure was done on the second. He trimmed the bony outgrowths and removed the blood vessels,’ explains Ulengo. He then flew back to Pretoria with clear instructions from Alfredson that his rehabilitation be monitored by Rossouw and daily feedback be provided to the Swede.
‘We were only there for two days, but in that time he achieved more than others had done in months,’ says Ulengo. ‘When he predicted a full recovery, I was under the impression I’d be ready to play in the latter stages of the Currie Cup. I regained full fitness in May and played my first game in June. We didn’t understand his insistence that we focus on my aerobic capacity during rehab, but I guess doing things differently makes him unique. He is a magician.’
After two games for the Blue Bulls in the Provincial Rugby Challenge in June, Ulengo was recalled by John Mitchell to the Super Rugby squad and started in their final two matches of the season, against the Jaguares and Lions. Now Ulengo wants to regain the form that saw him called up to the Boks and get a chance to savour the experience of international rugby.
‘I didn’t enjoy my first Test against Wales,’ he admits. ‘There was too much happening. The Springboks were having a poor season and I was dealing with a lot of stuff off the field; mentally I just wasn’t switched on with that injury playing on my mind. Instead of feeling pride and joy and going out there and lapping up the experience of being a Springbok debutant, all I felt was an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to get a Bok cap before the battered knee gave in. That’s how bad it was.
‘I want to play for the Springboks again and enjoy it this time. But I’m under no illusions. There’s a new national coach and I have to go out there and prove myself all over again. I will do that.
‘Having the surgery done by Professor Alfredson has given me a confidence boost. His track record is amazing and because of that, I don’t have any worries about the knee limiting my role to a few minutes per game. I just have to go out there and perform as I know I can.
‘I want to leave a lasting legacy for my son Samuel. He won’t remember the game against Wales, so I want him to see me play for the Springboks again.’
However, Ulengo is not just focused on his rugby career.
‘We often take our occupation and the advantages that come with it for granted. When it gets taken away or comes under threat, we realise how lucky we are to be in that position. It’s through the grace of God that I have been given a second chance. For me, playing professionally is a means to an end; I won’t and can’t let rugby consume my life.
‘The emotional strain of going through such an ordeal was every bit as hard as the physical pain. I never want to worry about financial security again, which is why I’m trying to build a life away from the game. I’m studying for a degree in marketing through Unisa and hope to launch my own business soon.’
Ulengo’s once uncertain future now appears bright, on and off the field, and he is able to look at the bright side of his ordeal.
‘I was invited by Professor Alfredson to put my autograph on his wall of fame when I saw him in January,’ he says. ‘It was a surreal moment, seeing my name alongside those of global sporting superstars. I appreciated that moment and saw it as a microcosm of my journey. Even in adversity, there is something to cherish.’
This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.