Howard Mnisi: Frans Steyn is a hero, now I can play alongside him

2020-05-19 14:14
Howard Mnisi
Howard Mnisi (Gallo Images)

When Howard Mnisi arrived at the Sharks Academy as a bright-eyed 18-year-old, he had a hero just two years his senior: Frans Steyn.

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Steyn's meteoric rise - he made his Test debut at 19 in 2006 already - meant the two men never had the opportunity to play alongside each other.

Twelve years later, in a local rugby landscape thrown into turmoil by the Covid-19 pandemic, fate has handed Mnisi a belated chance to form a midfield partnership with a man who inspired various Sharks youngsters... in Bloemfontein.

"It's really interesting how things work out. We were in awe of Frans' achievements when we arrived in Durban (in 2008)," the 30-year-old centre, who officially joined the Cheetahs on a two-year deal from the Southern Kings on Monday, told Sport24.

"We obviously knew not everyone could emulate him, but he made it fun for us to dream. He really was a hero in our eyes, even though he was still young. It's an exciting thought that I could play in the same midfield as him."

Mnisi, whose impact in a short space of time in Port Elizabeth was so dramatic that he eventually even captained the side, is hardly inexperienced nowadays following relatively successful stints with Griquas and the Lions as well.

That's why being exposed to the insights and influence of Steyn is exactly the tonic he needs at this juncture in a career that has seen its fair share of injuries.

"I'd like to think I've been around the block now for a while, but there's a tremendous amount I can still learn from Frans," said Mnisi.

"This is a man that's played in three World Cups, won two of them, and played in Japan and France. That's the type of experience you don't get everywhere. He's been exposed to so many different situations on the field and can offer so much."

But first, the man from Elukwatini - a township in Mpumalanga close to the Swaziland border - admits he needs to impress Cheetahs head coach Hawies Fourie, who was the franchise's assistant mentor when Mnisi got a Super Rugby trial in 2013.

His path to a starting spot has been made easier by Benhard Janse van Rensburg's departure for Japan, but he still has to compete with others like Dries Swanepoel, Carel Coetzee and Chris Smit.

"I'd like to think my experience counts in my favour, but there's no doubt I'll need to prove myself. One of the reasons I chose to come here is being part of an exciting project.

"The Cheetahs have always been known for boasting some really exciting backline players. The current group is no different. There are some great exponents around. I know some of them well because I came up against them earlier this season. The competition should be really good," said Mnisi.

His mature approach to this latest adventure is also shaped by the sheer "privilege" of still being able to ply his trade at an advanced level after a career-threatening injury in early 2017 while at the Lions, ironically on the opening day of that year's Super Rugby edition against the selfsame Cheetahs.      

Mnisi twisted his knee so badly that it required corrective surgery.

"The interesting [thing] for me was that when I look back, I actually learnt more life lessons than rugby ones during that time," he said.

"I focused actively on laying a platform for my career after rugby. I never really doubted that I'd be back, but that injury made me realise how quickly things can end for any player. I needed to make provision for that and I'm grateful I can still play the game."


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