With all the noise and fanfare that has come with the arrival of Jake White and the immediate impact he has made at Loftus, one “young bull calf” has quietly gone on with his road to recovery in the background at the “Kraal”. Simphiwe Matanzima has had perhaps,the most ratchet recent injury history of any South African professional rugby player of late. Having made his Super Rugby debut in 2019 for the Vodacom Bulls, he has often offered impressive cameos that have left the Bulls faithful anticipating more, but unfortunately his injury travails have prevented that, thus far.
The Queenstown-born prop’s latest injury had been projected to set him back nine months, and he relives the unfortunate moments that led to it. “It is a complete rapture of the Achilles tendon” he reveals, “During pre-season, we were doing a conditioning session,
I was running a bronco and on the second of three sets, it tore when I was turning on the try line” he recalls. It was the last thing Matanzima needed, having only just returned from another long term injury he suffered in his one and only cameo appearance of 2020, a Super Rugby first round loss away to the Sharks, an injury that set him back for three months. It doesn’t end there, just the previous year, after bursting onto the scene, he injured his MCL, in a grade 3 tear which sidelined him for a 12 week period.
All of these setbacks would no doubt take their toll on even the most seasoned of campaigners, a young Matanzima opens up about how they affected him. “It was very difficult in the beginning because I worked so hard to get back from my shoulder injury, and obviously there were changes that happened during lockdown, we got a new coach, and you always want to impress and play, so it was very difficult, knowing that I was going to be out for so long knowing just how hard I had worked to get back on to the pitch”. Matanzima then laments that it struck him at a time where he felt he was in the best condition to maximize his potential. “I was in great shape, and I was really looking forward to playing rugby again, because it had been a while since I had played, so yeah I’m not going to lie (chuckles) it was really dark in the beginning, really dark”. He reiterated.
But through the dark days and the mental turmoil he found himself in, Matanzima reveals that the biggest factor that pushed him out of bed every morning was saving his career and making sure he gets to write his own story the way he would want any journalist to narrate it, when it’s all said and done. “The biggest motivation for me was ‘I’m not done yet’” he said. “Even though I had just gone through this really serious injury, I just felt that, in my career I haven’t even scratched the surface of my potential, and that there is so much more I want to and can achieve and that it wouldn’t be fair to myself, more than anything, I have to prove to myself before I prove it to anyone else, I just feel like there is so much more that I have (left)” he said with a steely determination.
Another factor he doesn’t take for granted from that period, was the importance of a good support system, proving that there are very few things in life that are as effective as a mothers touch, and also that the Bulls didn’t neglect one of their own, through their highflying period. “My mom came down after my injury and stayed for a couple of weeks after my surgery, which was very important in the early stages”. “Also people at the Bulls supported me, you know? The coaches, our mental coach came to see me, to make sure I was in the right state of mind”. He said. The mobile loose head then reveals, as pivotal as it is to have people around you, eventually you will be alone and that is something you have to embrace instead of trying to escape. “I just personally feel that, if you going through something like that you need to work through it alone, as much as it is important for you to have a support system around you, most of the time you going to be alone, fighting those demons alone, so it’s also important to yourself to be mentally strong for and by yourself” he continued.
The Queens College Old Boy, is now well on the mend, and admits that he is now even able to spot a ray of sunlight at the end of, what has often seemed like a non-ending tunnel of darkness. “I’m about three to four months away now, so I’m in the last phase of my rehab and obviously now I’m at the point where I’m starting to look ahead to when I come back, so my motivation is how I am going to come back, when you come back from an injury you never want to come back the same, you want to come back even better so that’s what I’m working on, that is the main thing that motivates me, that I need to be a different or a better player and elevate my game” he admits that the road to recovery has its own potholes that can be tricky to navigate should you be a negligent driver. “The challenges of rehab are that, it’s always a repetitive process, you not going to change a lot day in, day out it’s just about keeping the repetitiveness up and ticking the boxes day in, day out”. He reveals.
When White came through the doors at Loftus, it wasn’t just the spectators who were waiting with bated breath to see, just what he could conjure up at the Pretoria-based union. The players too, were lining up to impress the former Springbok World Cup winning mentor, and convince him they have what it takes to form part of his long-term plans. Matanzima was no different, and he bemoans the timing of his latest setback, but reveals he has been given enough assurances that have gone a long way in ensuring he keeps a positive attitude while concentrating on his rehab. “It’s not ideal to get injured after a change at your union, you know? Obviously the best scenario is, you want to play for the new coach and impress him” he said. “But the most important thing for me, is if you have the backing of the new coach, and you know he will give you a chance when you’re healthy and ready to play.”
It hasn’t taken long for White to turn his Bulls outfit into one of the most feared in the country, and Matanzima understands it could be tough for the former Sharks coach to tamper with a squad which has garnered such momentum in his absence, an absence that prompted White to venture into the market to enlist the services of former Lions stalwart Jacques “Polisieman” Van Rooyen to plug the gap and offer experienced cover for the likes of Lizo Gqoboka. But even though the coach is who he would have to prove his worth to eventually, he insists that, he is not having sleepless nights over that situation, and that before you even get there, you have to convince and believe in yourself first and play your own part. “Most importantly (in this type of situation) you have to back yourself personally before anybody backs you, you need to back your ability that, when you do get the opportunity, you’ll make the most of it and regardless of who is playing now, while you injured, when you’re healthy and able to play you will be able to contribute, that has to be your biggest motivation. I wouldn’t say that I don’t sleep at night (chuckles), in fact that’s my motivation, I have to back my ability, because when I’m healthy I know what I’m capable of and I can contribute to the team positively and effectively”. He insists.
Speaking of Gqoboka, many have spoken about how Matanzima is the perfect long term successor to the Tabankulu-born prop. Apart from the fact that, they both hail from the Eastern Cape and play the same position, the similarities stretch beyond that, and factor their almost identical playing style which includes an astute ball handling game, offloading skills and a deceptive turn of pace. Matanzima reveals the influence u”Mfundisi” as Gqoboka is affectionately known, has had in his career thus far. “ Lizo has been instrumental with regards to my progress, especially in 2019 I played a lot behind him and we have a good relationship on and off the field, he has taught me a lot, in fact both him and Trevor (Nyakane), especially in 2019 then when he went to the Springboks last year I got a chance to start”. He then reveals the Springboks advice. “He used to tell me that it was two totally different experiences, starting and coming off the bench. They’re roles that require two different mindsets in which you have to approach the game. It is small things like that, but he has been very important to me and I would like to think that we play a similar brand of rugby”.
Although he has yet to be fully involved in the new regime, Matanzima couldn’t hide just how impressed he has been with White and his instant impact at the union, which includes silverware, since his arrival. “His arrival has been tremendous for the union, I mean the results actually speak for themselves, but even beyond that, as a person from the inside you can just see the change of culture, and the guys have bought into everything Coach Jake has brought with him”.
By the time the 23-year-old makes his long awaited return between the four lines, there is every possibility that it could be in a completely unfamiliar environment, as the Bulls prepare to enter into the Rainbow Cup era, an era which Matanzima admits he is licking his lips at the prospect of being a part of. “Personally, I’m very excited” he exclaimed. “Change is always exciting, granted its unchartered territory, but it’s something I’m really looking forward to”. He goes further to discuss the possible challenges. “ Obviously the first thing that pops up would be the conditions, as you know Northern conditions are different to normal Super Rugby conditions but at the same time, it is an opportunity to develop my game and our game, so yeah I feel like it’s something we’re all looking forward to.
As the finish line draws nearer on his road to recovery, with that remaining his biggest objective thus far, he revealed his lofty ambitions that lay beyond that. “After my return it’s elevating my game, going from that promising talent to being consistent and realizing my full potential, that’s the biggest thing for me”. He then revealed his dream of following in the footsteps of both Gqoboka and Nyakane. “I would obviously love to represent my country, that’s always been a childhood dream of mine, and that’s still the biggest thing on my mind. Then as a team, obviously we involved in the Rainbow Cup now, so having success in that competition are the type of short term goals we would be looking at, and putting the Bulls name back where it belongs, being a union that competes and wins those big titles” “Beast” concluded.