Port Elizabeth - When Alulutho Tshakweni returned to Port Elizabeth last November his plan was to get his studies underway at the Nelson Mandela University and in between enjoy a bit of rugby “for fun”.
After ending his short-term stint with the Blue Bulls’ under-21 side, the 20-year-old had just about buried his dream of becoming a professional rugby player.
Little did he know that Lady Luck would send some fortune his way and he will be playing in his seventh PRO14 match for the Southern Kings when they take on defending champions, Leinster on Friday night.
“When I came back to Port Elizabeth towards the end of last year, I never imagined that I would be here, playing PRO14 rugby. I came back with the intension of focusing on my studies and playing rugby for fun. Everything happened so quickly, and when things started happening I knew I would not look back, but would grab the opportunity with both hands,” Tshakweni reflected.
If things had happened differently, Tshakweni - who is currently the youngest player in the Southern Kings squad - would have probably turned out for NMU Madibaz in their Varsity Shield match when they took on Walter Sisulu University in an Eastern Cape derby on Thursday night. Instead, the former Junior Springbok will don the Southern Kings’ No 1 jersey as he earns his second starting berth in seven outings for the side in an international championship, against the defending European champions.
“I laugh about it now with my friends,” he chuckles. “I came back thinking I would play in the Varsity Shield for Nelson Mandela University and here I am now playing in an international competition. PRO14 rugby is a very tough competition, but I am enjoying the learning experience.”
Tshakweni’s return to his home province of the Eastern Cape coincided with an injury crisis in the prop position for the Southern Kings last November.
When the team’s forwards coach consultant, Rob Kempson - who had coached Tshakweni at the Eastern Province Academy - caught wind of the player’s presence back home, he quickly recommended that the youngster be drafted into the squad. The rest, as the old adage suggests, is history.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity I received when I did not even expect it. I’m fortunate that I played under Rob at the Academy, and it was him who recommended that I be given a chance,” the 20-year-old said.
“I just want to give my best on every opportunity that I get. I am also very fortunate to have a lot of the senior guys like Schalk Ferreira and Michael Willemse who are always willing to help out and impart their knowledge. Everyone is doing their part to ensure that I grow as a player, particularly Robbi Kempson, who has been a great mentor.
“The key focus at the moment for me is to learn my trade - focus on the basics that are required in my position at this level - and to get better. I also need to look after my body and get myself in the best shape that is required to be a quality loosehead prop.”
Tshakweni’s rise to the top is a typical one of many of the young talents the Southern Kings are targeting to nurture, retain in the province and to give a platform to become star players.
The young prop was born in East London and grew up in his home village of Qawukeni in Middledrift where, as a young boy, he played the game of rugby with and against men almost twice his age on the dusty, grassless and uneven fields of the rural area.
“Knowing how genuinely happy and excited the people from my home village, my family and friends are for my budding career gets me going. It is them who give me the most support. Most of them cannot even dream of playing at this level. So this is an opportunity I do not take lightly,” said Tshakweni.
He realised his potential to play the game at the highest level when he represented the First XV at Hudson Park High School - the alma mater of former Springbok twins, Akona and Odwa Ndungane.
Last year Tshakweni was part of the SA under-20 team that claimed the bronze medal by beating New Zealand in the third-fourth place playoff match in France.
“Being part of the Junior Springbok team helped me in a massive way to get a feel of what playing top-level rugby is like. It was definitely a good experience that was a good confidence-booster and mindset that assisted in me adjusting to PRO14 rugby,” he said.
Like all young rugby players, Tshakweni’s ultimate goal is to don the green and gold of the senior Springbok team, but he is keeping his feet firmly on the ground and taking things one step at a time.
“The focus now is right here with the Southern Kings,” he expressed.
“Right now I am just a young prop who is still learning his trade. I am learning from my weaknesses and becoming comfortable in my position. That is all I want to do for the next two seasons or so, and to remain a part of this team. Everything else will follow.”
But the talented young prop did indicate that in the distant future he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Ndungane twins by becoming the next Springbok to emerge from Hudson Park High School.
More immediate though, Tshakweni is hoping to make a positive contribution for the Southern Kings in Friday night’s match against Leinster.
The match kicks off at 21:55 (SA time) at RDS Arena in Dublin.
15 Barry Daly, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Conor O’Brien, 12 Noel Reid, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Hugh O’Sullivan, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Max Deegan, 6 Josh Murphy, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Ross Molony (captain), 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rónan Kelleher, 1 Ed Byrne.
Substitutes: 16 James Tracy, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Jack Dunne, 20 Scott Fardy, 21 Paddy Patterson, 22 Jimmy O’Brien, 23 Rory O’Loughlin
15 Ulrich Beyer, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Meli Rokoua, 12 Berton Klaasen, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Bader Pretorius, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Tienie Burger, 6 Henry Brown, 5 Andries van Schalkwyk, 4 Stephan Greeff, 3 De-Jay Terblanche, 2 Michael Willemse (captain), 1 Alulutho Tshakweni
Substitutes: 16 Alandre Van Rooyen, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Pieter Scholtz, 19 JC Astle, 20 Andisa Ntsila, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Tertius Kruger, 23 Masixole Banda