’I’ve been fortunate enough to realise that dream’: Sharks captain Phepsi Buthelezi is leading from the front
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Durban - Phepsi Buthelezi is silent for a few seconds as he thinks about a moment that defined the brotherhood of South African rugby in a way the world had never seen before, and which the new Vodacom United Rugby Championship excelled in showcasing.
A competition that promised to give rugby fans a different side to the game did exactly this on a Saturday evening in Cardiff. The Vodacom Bulls had just won their first match on their UK Tour. They were celebrating wildly on the pitch when a group of men came down from their seats in the stands and called them over to the sideline. They weren’t fans. In fact, they were arch-rivals.
But at that moment, the Sharks skipper – recalling how he and his teammates ran to the sideline and celebrated with the Vodacom Bulls players – says they were one thing and one thing only.
“We’re all brothers,” he says. “In South Africa we’re rivals and we have our derbies and want to beat each other. But on that night in Wales, the connections that rugby gives you showed that we are South African brothers first.”
With this assessment, Buthelezi shows exactly why at the age of 22 he holds a leadership position at the Sharks and is so widely respected by his peers and coach Sean Everitt.
And having grown up on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal as one of four brothers – along with a sister – Buthelezi has that feeling of brotherhood ingrained into him.
“All of my brothers were very sporty at school and all played rugby. They’d come back from school and we’d play touch rugby in the backyard on the farm. That’s where it all started for me and where I fell in love with the game. In primary school I got picked up by a scout from Durban High School and developed from there.”
That development included being pulled into the Sharks fold early on as a junior and going on to play for the South African Schools and Junior Springbok teams. And now he’s taken another major step forward, having led the team on a bold new journey in the United Rugby Championship.
“Playing for the Sharks was always a dream of mine. I’ve been fortunate enough to realise that dream, and now I’ve been given that special position of being able to lead the team. It’s an unbelievable honour to lead the Sharks.”
He led the team to one win out of their three matches, matching the efforts of every other South African team on their UK Tour. But Buthelezi says the points they gained from that victory over the Ospreys is nothing compared with the experience he’s gained as a player.
“The Vodacom United Rugby Championship has exposed me to playing in different countries and against international opposition every weekend. There were a lot of unknowns for us as a team. This was a new competition with new playing conditions. We also had a new group of players going overseas, so there was that element of getting used to each other as a group.
“As captain, I’m very fortunate to have an awesome leadership group behind me. Coach Sean Everitt and I go way back. He’s like a father figure to me, giving me advice and having honest conversations with me. I’ve always been honest in that I won’t always have the answers. I’m only 22 and still learning.”
Apart from the moment they shared with the Bulls in Cardiff, Buthelezi says the other highlight for him so far was playing against Irish international and fellow loose forward Peter O’Mahony in their game against Munster.
“I was really looking forward to playing against Peter, who is an Irish rugby legend. It was fantastic to be able to measure myself against him. He was also captain on the day, so it was great to interact with him on that level as well, and then to also play against him and see how he plays and leads on the field and how he communicates with his players and the referee.”
Buthelezi is well aware of what this new era in world rugby means to South African fans.
“You know, I was back home for a bit after the UK Tour, and I saw again how much it means to my family, the opportunities I’ve been given. My mom in particular always gets very emotional, and she says she sometimes struggles to watch me play because she gets so angry if other players tackle me.
“And even when I go out to the shops, the people of Hluhluwe come up and thank me for what I’m doing. It always makes me realise how blessed I am to be able to make people feel good. Sometimes as a player things are happening for you and you sometimes don’t realise how much it means to those around you.”
That will be his – and his fellow Sharks players’ – main priority now ahead of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship home matches – to give their fans something to cheer for.
“We need to perform for our fans. We’ve learned a lot on the UK Tour, and now it’s time to grow and assert ourselves in this competition. And for me individually, I just want to maximise my potential to perform consistently in every game.”
Buthelezi isn’t saying exactly where he hopes that kind of form will take him. But having already pulled on a green blazer for SA Schools and the Junior Springboks, the message is clear.
“If my performance results in any call-up, that will happen when the time is right. I can only control my own performance and show people the best of me every single weekend.”
He certainly showed the best of him as the leader of a group of men who were in the stands that night in Cardiff as brothers in the new brotherhood of the United Rugby Championship.