By Yolulwe Qoshe
The Sharks being one of the most prestigious and reputable rugby unions in the world, would undoubtedly have a strong pull factor. When you add the quality of their facilities and what they offer to players, regardless of the stage of their career that they’re in, they then become an even more desirable option for so many schoolboy rugby prospects.
But, like every big union with a big talent pool, the competition is always going to be tough and it is inevitable that a few young boys will see their dreams seemingly turn to dust. That would be a feeling all too familiar with
Khwezi Mona. However, the East London-born prop has lived to tell a second chapter to his Sharks story, as the Durban union, have afforded him what, so many would’ve retired wishing for…another opportunity back at their dream union. It is one Mona is clearly not taking lightly, and he reveals the emotions he felt as soon as he found out that a return was on the cards. “It was an unreal feeling for me” said an audibly beaming Mona.
“It was something I thought would never happen
again, for me to return to Durban and in my mind I had already made peace with that and I was
ready to move forward with my career, but when the opportunity came I jumped at it”.
He then reveals why this move carries extra sentiment to him, and why it’s not just a return to a union he once played for. “I have always supported the Sharks, and it’s always been a dream for me to play for them, so it’s a surreal experience for me to get that realization and opportunity to
play for them again” he admits.
The mobile loosehead then sums up what his first week back to familiar surroundings has been, feeling as if it is just rewards for years of hard work away. “It’s been crazy! There has been a lot of positives and a lot of nerves but this is something that I have been working for, my whole career when I left Durban six years ago. I’ve just been honing in my craft and getting better with every game, working on it diligently”. He also admits, however, that the objective was just to get back to this level, rather than to a specific union, but he is grateful the stars aligned regardless.
“The goal wasn’t to specifically go back to the Sharks, but rather to take the next step. But I’m
so thankful and appreciative that the Sharks were like “we want you back to ply your trade here”
it’s just hard to put in words”.
In a very honest and open manner, the Selborne College Old Boy dissects and details the difference between the 22-year-old that left and the 28-year-old that returned to the Sharks. “The way I see it, is that kid was still living off the hype of his schoolboy rugby, and was a bit unsure of his scrumming and set piece ability, but had lots of energy and was rather playing with a chip on his shoulder without knowing the role of being a team player” he admits. “The 28 year-old understands that every role is important, if you the guy picking cones or bags in training, every contribution is important in order to get that win, there is nothing worse than investing time and
effort then losing on the weekend.”
Mona made the hard but brave decision to leave the warm beaches and state of the art facilities in Durban, prioritizing growth as a player and a man, in Mbombela. He attributes a lot of his senior development to joining a very experienced Pumas side that even went on to produce World Cup
winning Springboks. “ Joining a teaming who’s average age was around 27-28, a team with guys like Vincent Koch, Rosko Specman and Faf de Klerk, an established team, learning how to be a team player, and that your contribution at training is massive to the guys into the game and
learning as well as listening to senior players, just the skill of listening and applying, put me in the right stem to climb the team “hierarchy” year by year and putting more responsibility on my shoulder to produce on the field for the team and wanting that responsibility”.
Additionally to the Mpumalanga-based union, part of those six years away were also split between Mona putting in the hard yards and “paying his dues” at unions like Griquas as well as the Southern Kings briefly . Collectively they came with very valuable lessons and aided in
Mona’s holistic development. “ It taught me how to win, winning cups, the formula and how to close games out was something I didn’t know to close games out, was something I didn’t know when I was 22”. He then goes into deeper detail. “ The eight inches above my shoulder and learning how to utilize that into games and not just relying on my athletic ability to play well, but also doing the tedious work, at terminals and learning game plans, studying my opponents is a skill that I learnt away from the Sharks”
And moving to a level below the Sharks automatically makes you and underdog, something he feels had a positive impact on his development too, as it also gave him a different perspective on other ways in which to win a rugby game. “You always punching above your weight, you going
up against Springboks, at big unions teaches you that you need to work together, you can’t do things alone, is probably the biggest thing that I learnt going through this whole journey to get back to the Sharks, you can’t win alone, you pick up the youngsters, the ones lagging behind
because it’s a team sport”. He said passionately
Mona then goes further by pinpointing some of the most important figures that moulded his development and character during those six years away from the Sharks, saying he is forever indebted to them. “My development wouldn’t of happened without the support structure I had, coming out of the Sharks from guys like Seabelo Nhlapo, Brian Shabangu and Lubabalo “Giant” Mtyanda, guys who literally took me under their wing and were like “this is how the game is, this is how you work in a team” without those three gentlemen I don’t think I would be where I am right now. I really cant state just how important my relationship with them was for my
development, they protected me like a little brother. I could never repay what they did for me”.
Another person who has contributed to Mona’s development is current Sharks forwards coach Brent Janse van Rensburg, a man who had coached him at both the Pumas and Griquas previously and was rumoured to have had a massive influence on Mona’s return. Mona, however, admits to knowing very little about that particular situation, before singing the praises of van Rensburg while reminiscing. “I just know that he was joining a new union, so I couldn’t tell you how big of a say he had in the move” he admits. “But what I can say about coach Brent is that, he helped develop and push me. He never lets me rely on my talent alone, but challenges
me but to say that coach Brent was pivotal in the move as the one pulling the strings, I couldn’t say that ”.
He then pinpoints the whole current management and the roles that they have individually played in his development. “Coach Etienne Fynn was the one who converted me from a loose forwards to a prop. Coach Sean Everitt was the coach who gave me my first opportunity at senior rugby at the Sharks so the whole management have literally watched me grow through different phases, they were the first coaching staff to even believe in me”.
Mona then explains that the Sharks were always at the forefront of his development, even as a high scholar before they mapped out a fruitful pathway for him. A powerful running blindside flank while in the black and white of Selborne College, he admits to have found himself at a
crossroads when he was asked to try his hand at prop when he switched to the black and white of the Sharks, but as soon as he saw that he would be giving himself his best chance at a topflight career, he swallowed his pride and gave it a try. “(laughs) look, honestly the first time I had that
conversation with coach Etienne and coach Swys du Bruin and Oom Hans, who was the Sharks Academy coach, I didn’t take it well” he admits. “It took a month of convincing and I think they got to a stage where they wanted me to see for myself that the requirements to become a professional loose forward are crazy”.
He then recalls seeing the signs himself and understanding exactly where the coaching staff were coming from when they made that decision. “I just didn’t fit the mould in any aspect. I wasn’t tall enough to be a line out option, I was too heavy, the speed factor also. But on the other hand I
was always a hard worker, I had a good feel for the game, growing up I was a very physical boy but to take the next step and have a good career past high school at loose forward, was never going to be the route for me, it took me seeing that myself to understand that in order to make the
He then attributes his adjustment in that role to certain individuals that he is grateful for, as they have seemingly given him a career. “Coach Etienne was tremendous in the way that he never allowed me to cut any corners, I learnt every single step, from the beginning, I paid my dues at club rugby to the point that I was good enough for coach Sean to give me a crack”. That then led to his four senior caps that he has at the Sharks, a number he will be hoping to add a significant number to. He then praises the Sharks environment for making the transition almost seamless. “ I mean, there is no place in the world where you can make a move like that besides the Sharks.
The facilities, strength and conditioning they knew the blueprint, having done it with Beast (Mtawarira) already, so I just had to follow, once I actually started enjoying being a prop, it became easier. But it wasn’t easy to tell myself that my time as a loose forward was up but a new chapter and challenge lies ahead of me and I need to take it on”. Nhlapo is again mentioned, as an influence in this particular instance as he was making a similar transition himself. “He was moving from lock to prop, he dealt with all the struggles and told me where he made his mistakes. He showed me where the landmines where for a guy moving to that position, I mean knowledge like that helped my learning curve so much.”
The bulldozing front rower comes into a team which already boasts Springbok Ox Nche and Mzamo Majola competing for the number one jersey, and he reveals the coaching staff have outlined his role for him, and it was nothing he wasn’t expecting. “The Sharks are all about competition, they believe in the squad they have. They have so many guys here and every position is so fiercely competed for so, for me it was a thing of “Hey, lad you here now for another round, we believe in you, go out there and when you get your opportunity take it”. so they want guys to be pushing each other, as the saying goes “Iron sharpens iron”.
Despite coming as senior player with vast experience, the Vodacom Cup winner reveals that hasn’t necessitated him being earmarked for a leadership role, and that he is just content to contribute to the side. “They have their senior players and leadership group in place, I am just here to do my job, and to help the team as best as I can. I’m not here for labels or anything like that, I’m here to help the guys who are already “driving the bus” I’m thankful that I don’t have to worry about any externals”
In terms of expectations he has placed on himself, he refuses to look too far forward. “I don’t have any lofty expectations, I just want to help the team win, that’s as far as I’ve thought. Maybe after this season, I will sit down and set up long term goals, but right now I’m not looking too far
ahead, just taking it week by week”
Mona, already mentioned that he was following the blueprint of Mtawarira who is a legend at both the Sharks and the Springboks. The World Cup winner was 34 when he stood on the podium with his gold medal around his neck. Mona, a member of the South African Rugby Elite squad for boys u16 back in 2008, would be 32 in the year of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in
France, but admits that, although it would be a dream for him to be a Springbok, but the stage that his career is in right now, has switched his whole mentally from individual, to collective orientated instead.
“Getting into the Green and Gold is the first dream I ever had after I picked
up a rugby ball and if it was ever going to happen, it is going to happen while I’m at the Sharks, but it doesn’t happen unless I do my job and help the team first. Really at this stage it’s not about
me, it’s about us. The World Cup I still three years away, so we will see. Maybe you can ask me
again after two years and I’ll let you know”. He concluded.