South Africa: Sintu Manjezi Takes the Bulls By the Horns

After a tug of war between the Cheetahs and the Bulls for his services, the lock-cum-flanker decided on a move to Pretoria, the latest step on an injury-strewn road to stardom.

After experiencing many nightmares for much of his career, Sintu Manjezi is finally living his dream. At one point, the 25-year-old even contemplated quitting rugby. It is a career that has seen many near misses, injuries and disappointments.

What has always been certain though is his talent, highlighted by the Bulls and the Cheetahs fighting to acquire his service for the 2020 season. The Pretoria outfit won that fight, snapping up a player who had been tipped for greatness during his days at St. Andrew's College. Manjezi also captained Eastern Province Country Districts at the 2013 Craven Week. But, four years later, he would begin to think that he could not fulfil that potential and expectation.

No sooner had he broken into the Southern Kings' Super Rugby squad than an injury hampered his progress. "When I left Kings, I didn't really have any certainty of where I was going to go. I kind of thought it could have been the end of the road, so I was grateful to get a contract at the Griquas," said Manjezi.

The player was not immediately the first name on the Griquas team sheet, but game by game, it became increasingly clear that the Kimberley-based side had unearthed a diamond in the rough. Manjezi would later win the 2018 Griquas Forward Player of the Year award.

Somewhat surprisingly, he was still unable to secure his desired move back to Super Rugby. As it turned out, his detour at the Cheetahs proved a blessing in disguise.

"I don't think any team in South Africa plays with the same open brand of rugby as the Cheetahs... Also, playing in the PRO14, playing in those conditions, having to adapt to the PRO14. I think those kinds of things have equipped me much better than if I look back at where I was in 2017," Manjezi explains.

"Playing against PRO14 teams, the set-piece battle is very vital because of the wet conditions and stuff like that. Sometimes, you can't really pass and move the ball into gainline, if I can put it like that. Sometimes, you have to kick, sometimes you have to get scrum penalties or maul penalties to get gainline and be able to play in the other team's 22 and score tries. That department, I've had to adapt to.

"The more challenges or attempts you can put yourself through, the better equipped you will be. Obviously, having played at the Griquas and Cheetahs, my development being at those clubs and my experiences will always make me a better player."

Bulls and Cheetahs in tug of war

Manjezi played a starring role in the Cheetahs' Currie Cup win last year. With their season on the brink of collapse following back-to-back losses, his lineout steal at the death against the Pumas saw them over the line in a crucial comeback win. Neither the Cheetahs nor Manjezi looked back, as three further wins on the bounce saw them to the title.

The lock-cum-flanker wormed his way into the hearts of his teammates in Bloemfontein, and the Cheetahs fought hard to keep him. They engaged his agent, Dane Galley, in negotiations for a contract extension. Both Galley and Cheetahs media manager Ronel Pienaar have confirmed that multiple offers were made to Manjezi's camp. Galley was not fully satisfied with the first two he received.

The Cheetahs did all they could to keep discussions alive. After Manjezi's camp requested a sign-on fee in the case of an extension, they paid the first instalment. They hoped this would be the key to securing their lock's services. According to Galley, Manjezi's camp immediately sought to return the money, because the East London-born lock had his heart set on a Super Rugby return.

"We actually really wanted Sintu Manjezi, so we tried our best. At the end, he wanted to go to the Bulls, so we can't keep him," Pienaar said. Nevertheless, Pienaar is at pains to point out that there are no hard feelings from the Cheetahs camp towards Manjezi, whom she describes as a "gentle giant".

"It was sad to let him go, but we wish him well," said Pienaar. "We're looking to his future with excitement. I think he can go from strength to strength, especially with a coach like Jake White."

Playing for 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White would surely be a dream come true for any rugby player, but Manjezi is not approaching this as a wide-eyed rookie. Nevertheless, he recognises the value he can gain from the experience of the likes of White and Springboks' No. 8 and Blues teammate Duane Vermeulen.

"Working with coach Jake, I think, is good. He brings a lot of calmness, but also allows you to express yourself. He doesn't want you to be boxed up and one-dimensional. He wants you to express yourself and be able to play what's in front of you," he said.

"What's nice here is we've got players of high calibre - just looking at Duane, for example. [There are] players who have played and won at the highest level. I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from him. To use an analogy, I'm trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can and hopefully put that into my game."

Manjezi made brief cameos off the bench in the Bulls' first four Super Rugby Unlocked matches. Ironically, they began with two of his former teams, a 30-23 win over the Griquas and a 19-17 defeat to the Cheetahs before smashing the Sharks 41-14 and the Stormers 39-6. If he is to be one of the stars in a squad brimming with depth, it appears this will not come easy.

For all the points Manjezi has yet to prove, he has shown since leaving the Eastern Cape that even when the bounce of the ball does not favour him in life, this will not deter his enthusiasm in pursuit of his dreams.

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