Should the Free State Cheetahs beat the Golden Lions in Bloemfontein on Saturday, 24-year old lock Sintu Manjezi will be a Currie Cup champion.
While few who have known him since his youth will be surprised by this feat, the man himself has had some doubts about his rugby career.
Having captained Makhanda’s (Grahamstown) St. Andrew’s College as well as Eastern Province Country Districts at Craven Week in 2013, expectations were high when Manjezi turned pro. He made his Super Rugby debut with the Southern Kings in 2016 and everything seemed to be going to plan.
Then came every player’s worst nightmare: injury. From late 2016 until early 2017 he was out with a knock to his knee. In May that same year, he sprained his ankle.
Manjezi watched on while some of his teammates’ careers began to blossom. Earning a place in the starting line-up was a struggle after injury.
“For me personally as an individual, yes [it was a frustrating time], because I want to be there playing with my mates. I want to be winning games, because in the 2017 year, they did well,” Manjezi reflects.
That year his school team-mate, Tyler Paul, earned a move to the Sharks. Paul scored the winning try in the Currie Cup final against Western Province the very next season.
“To see another friend do well — especially someone like Tyler having grown up with him — I was very happy for him; to see him do well. I think he had a very good 2017 year. I’d never not be supportive of a friend that I’ve grown up with,” says Manjezi.
Despite his graciousness, Manjezi was facing turbulence in his own career. The 2017 Super Rugby season was the Southern Kings’ last and he realised it was time to move on. The towering lock, also comfortable at flanker, opted to join Griquas.
Manjezi kept strong on the surface, but deep down, he feared it could be his last chance to realise his dream.
“There was a whole lot of speculation about whether or not Kings would still be around and able to play PRO14, all that kind of stuff. I decided: ‘Listen, let me just move to Griquas. They’re obviously not playing Super Rugby or PRO14, but I’ll hopefully get more game time that side and see where it goes from there,’” Manjezi recalls.
“Moving to Kimberley, at the time, I honestly just thought that at the end of my contract, it could be the end of my rugby career or something big could happen.
“All I knew at the time was that if I worked hard, something big could happen, and if I didn’t work hard, it could be the end.”
Manjezi responded by putting himself back on the radar at the Griquas. Here, he was afforded regular game time and grabbed his chance with both hands. He earned himself the Griquas 2018 Forward Player of the Year prize and a move to the Cheetahs.
But even with the change of scenery came more setbacks.
The Cheetahs had a bout of second-season syndrome in the 2018/19 PRO14. After a squad overhaul, they finished sixth in Conference A with just eight wins from 21 games – a far cry from their debut campaign when they made it to the quarterfinal.
“One thing that I realised when I got here was that everyone basically was new here… The last three games of PRO14, we were basically building. We were counting those games as our warmup for Currie Cup,” Manjezi says.
“[Coach] Franco [Smith] always spoke about how we must work towards being in the final, how we must work towards lifting that Currie Cup, because we would have had a year under the belt and we would have been able to gel much better as a team.”
The Cheetahs came flying out of the blocks in their first two Currie Cup games this year, beating the Blue Bulls 43-27 and the Griquas 68-14. Manjezi was immense in that match against his former team.
Then came disappointing defeats to the Golden Lions (24-22) and the Sharks (27-20). When they fell behind against the Pumas, they could have been forgiven for thinking their Currie Cup dream was falling apart.
“Franco basically told us to stick to the gameplan. [He told us] to execute what we do well and that the scoreboard and everything else would handle themselves. I think that’s what we looked to do in the second half,” recalls Manjezi of that day at the Mbombela Stadium.
The Cheetahs pulled off a 43-37 comeback win with a lineout steal from Manjezi at the death helping them clinch victory.
Then came the decisive clash against Western Province. Trailing 33-12, the Bloemfontein side showed some grit. The won 38-33 in front of their jubilant home fans, topping the table and setting up a semi-final where they’d host the Sharks.
Smith’s side won that match in Bloem 51-30. Now it’s onto the final against the Golden Lions.
The Cheetahs have already lost to the Lions on home soil this year, but Manjezi is unperturbed.
“We’re not taking any credit away from the Lions or Sharks [the other team to beat the Cheetahs in the round robin phase], but in both those games, we felt we made a lot of mistakes to allow them in,” he says.
“There was a certain kind of try we conceded from us being on attack and them going 80, 90 metres to score tries off turnovers. We knew that if we stuck to our gameplan and were able to execute better, we’d be able to do much better in stopping those tries.”
Sticking to the gameplan is a recurring theme in what Manjezi has to say. In a sense, this is precisely what he had to do on a personal level when injury threatened to cost him everything he dreamed of.
Allan Miles, who coached Manjezi at St. Andrew’s and Craven Week, rates him as one of the best schoolboy players he has ever had at his disposal. In addition, Miles — now Head of Rugby at Grey High — is at pains to stress the importance of Manjezi’s qualities both on and off the field.
In 2016, Miles said that Manjezi had the potential to become a Springbok. Even after all the lock has endured in the game, his former schoolboy coach stands by that statement. “He definitely has integrity and he’s a player that has that skillset. He has the ability to still make it,” he says when reminded of his past claim.
“Height-wise, I don’t think he’s ever quite going to be two metres, but he’ll obviously work hard still and make it that way.”
A win for the Cheetahs on Saturday would certainly help Manjezi’s cause. He is more nervous and excited than usual by his own admission, but trying his best to treat it like any other game. After all, he knows the gameplan — it is merely a matter of execution. – ETM