The news that former Sharks captain Tera Mtembu has signed with US Major League Rugby side New England Free Jacks signalled the end to an unfulfilled career in South African rugby.
Mtembu’s appointment as the first black African captain in domestic first-class rugby, at the ripe old age of 23 in 2014, generated a lot of expectation. But as his time at the Durban franchise winds down – he leaves for Boston in Massachusetts in December – his career is measured more by injury layoffs than by caps earned.
In the 11 years he was at the Sharks, Mtembu amassed 47 Super Rugby caps, 44 appearances in the Currie Cup and turned out for the Sharks XV 33 times – a period in which he’s had no less than seven knee operations – six of them on one leg.
But good luck trying to convince him his time at the Sharks was a case of what might have been.
“It would have been interesting to see how far I would have gone if I’d only had half my knee injuries. Looking at how my life has turned out, if someone had said to me this is how it would be 11 years ago, I would have taken it. Being injured a lot, it was a blessing for me to look at other avenues outside rugby and to keep reminding myself that rugby does not define who I am,” said Mtembu.
“It’s a big part of my life and it has moulded me into the man I am today – by using every opportunity I’ve got from it – be it playing or networking.”
The off the field bits Mtembu refers to are getting his level two coaching badges – which is why his three-year deal with the Free Jacks includes coaching the club’s academy side – and establishing a foothold in the property market.
“Five years ago, our [biokineticist] Jimmy Wright got a few of us to do an individual player development programme the Sharks started years ago. There was a property manager who taught us the basics of property [investment].
“We did a six-week course and I found that I was interested in property [investment] and I got to start my property portfolio at 24. Recently, I met a guy called Peter Cameron, who buys and sells property with [former Sharks and Springbok player] Butch James. They’ve offered me an amazing opportunity to be their intern in selling property.”
For all the fulfilment he has found off the field, the horror show that has been the King William’s Town native’s knees bears repeating. To gain a sense of how long Mtembu has been managing pain in those joints, bear in mind that he sustained his first injury at 12.
“I was playing rugby on the street, tore my meniscus and it swelled up,” he begins.
“I drained it and carried on playing. And from then until I was 24, I used to drain it once a year. But after 12 years of playing with it like that, I had nothing left in the joint – and that’s how this whole cycle began.”
The basic – and lengthy – inventory of his knee injuries is that he has injured the left knee six times, twice getting anterior cruciate ligament damage and the rest meniscus and cartilage damage, with the right knee needing “just a scope”.
While the list may just about trip off the tongue, it doesn’t convey the hairy moments when things were so serious he could have lost his leg. Having injured his leg on the last day of the last session in the last move of the 2016 preseason, Mtembu had a scope and was marooned in Durban for the holidays and accepted an invitation for dinner at a friend’s place.
The friend’s mother noticed that his left leg was much bigger than his right leg and made such a fuss that he called the Sharks’ physiotherapist, who referred him to a doctor the next day.
“I woke up on December 31 and I couldn’t walk, my leg was massive. The GP took one look at it and decided to admit me. And when they opened the stitches from the scope the pus was pouring out as if it was from a hosepipe,” Mtembu said.
“They told me that there was a superbug that grows in your leg and eats at your ligaments and even bones. They told me if I’d left it for another day, I would have lost my leg.”
He says that, while there have been dark days, a friend helped him manage his emotions through the injuries. He suggested that he should do himself a favour after operations by poking his head into the hospital intensive care unit to see what hectic medical problems look like.
The US deal allows Mtembu, who is grateful to the Sharks for continuing to extend his contract, to end a career that hasn’t always gone according to plan on his own terms.