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'Cultural diversity has been Shimlas' strength'

FNB Varsity Cup

Prop Melusi Mthabela speaks about the unity within the FNB UFS Shimlas squad, his admiration for Springbok legend Beast Mtawarira and the opportunity to play in the FNB Varsity Cup playoffs.

What about rugby attracted you to the game? I come from a small community where the game of rugby is foreign, but my oldest brother went to a high school that plays rugby. During the 2007 World Cup, he made us watch the semi-finals and final. From those games, my interest grew. It’s a game that can unite, bring joy and make a whole nation proud.

Who had the biggest influence on your game? I was a big boy growing up. When I decided to try out at the age of 12, the only suitable position for me was in the front row. At the time, Beast Mtawarira was playing for the Springboks and he definitely had an influence on my rugby. He was my Idol.

How did you end up playing for FNB UFS Shimlas? After the 2020 Varsity Cup campaign, I felt like I needed a bigger platform to showcase my rugby talent. At that time, I had a couple of offers but Shimlas just felt like the right choice. I couldn't play in 2021 due to studies but I made the choice to come back again and it was one of the soundest decisions I've ever made in my life. I love it here.

Earlier in the season, you came on as a sub. More recently, you've worn the No 1 on your back. How much have you enjoyed the campaign? I've always believed in the coaches, and when I was given the opportunity, I knew that they believed in me too. It made it easy for me to wear the starting jersey, but it also gave me a great sense of responsibility. I have enjoyed it to the point that I don't want it to end.

This is your last FNB Varsity Cup campaign. What has made the journey special? It has to be the band of brotherhood that we've formed this year. The team has a lot of cultural diversity, which can be a stumbling block for others, but not for us. We have embraced it. We've come together to form a great team that has mutual respect for one another, and that has formed a sense of belonging for all. I can confidently say I've made some brothers for life.

There are possibly two more games left in the tournament for yourself and FNB UFS Shimlas. How emotional is it going to be, especially when you hear the national anthem in the build-up? It's always an emotional feeling for us to stand there and sing the national anthem. During that moment, I definitely feel grateful for my God-given talent. I always envision my family watching from home and think how proud they must be to see me singing the national anthem on TV. For my parents to say, 'That's my son' – that always makes me emotional.

What are your plans for the future? That’s a question that's still in my head, but I do have several qualifications under my belt for me to explore [Bachelor of Public Administration degree, Bcom Honours in Supply Chain Management, and a post graduate diploma in Public Administration]. I would also like to go back home and help with the family farming business, but my heart is still with rugby. I always pray that the Lord grants me the opportunity to go pro. But for now, my main focus is the Varsity Cup.

What is it that makes Melusi Mthabela a unique player? I'm a very level-headed person. I can handle pressure very well, on and off the field. People have always thought my height [1.68m] is a bit of a disadvantage [at the scrum], but I feel like it's actually an advantage for me as a prop. Also, I'm a player who can play both the tight game and running rugby. For me, that is very important.

Interview by Morgan Piek

Photo: Hannes Naude/Varsity Cup

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