When Siyabonga Masuku made his Isuzu Southern Kings and Guinness PRO14 debut with a stellar performance against Benetton Rugby last Saturday, few would have known that just at the start of 2019 the flyhalf’s rugby career had reached a dead-end.
He will have an opportunity to make another good impression again this week when the Isuzu Southern Kings take on Scottish side, Glasgow Warriors, on Friday night. Masuku will be on the bench.
Last December the 23-year-old’s contract with his former union, the Golden Lions, was cut short, forcing Masuku to return home to the small, little-known town of Paulpietersburg in northern KwaZulu Natal.
“It has not been an easy journey,” Masuku reflects.
“I’m forever grateful to the Golden Lions Rugby Union for the opportunity to help develop me as a player. The most difficult time came in December 2018 when my contract was cut with a year to go. From December to January I was just sitting at home, desperately calling agents to try get some assistance, but nothing came up. It was tough!”
Rewind back a few years to his childhood, Masuku had not even dreamed of one day playing professional rugby. In the beginning, he only played the game because it was “forced” and he also got to travel to matches with his friends. Football was the preferred sport in Paulpietersburg, where he was raised by his grandmother.
“At Paulpietersburg Primary School we played football in summer and had to play rugby in winter. My friends and I preferred soccer, but because we were forced to play rugby in winter, we had to play the game. As time went by I started enjoying the game of rugby,” Masuku remembered.
“I just played, never imagining where the game would take me. The main reason I played was just to travel with my friends when we went on school tours. I’ve always been fascinated by seeing new places and people,” said Masuku from his hotel room in Glasgow after the team had travelled from Italy – two destinations he enjoyed visiting on his first tour with the Isuzu Southern Kings.
While he has some fond memories of his childhood, life has never been easy for Masuku. At the age of five he lost his supportive father in 2001.
As the youngest sibling among four – and also being the only boy – it was his grandmother who took over the supportive role and ensured that Musuku remained on the straight and narrow. However, she too passed on in 2006 when Masuku was in Grade 4.
“It was my granny who did everything for me,” reminisced the flyhalf.
“I also had the support of my siblings, my aunts and uncles. I was fortunate to have a good family support structure.
“When my dad passed on he had plans to get me to good schools and it was my grandmother who ensured that happened. I was the first one from my family to attend former Model C schools.”
It was during those school years at Paul Pietersburg Primary School and later Piet Retief High School in Mpumalanga that Masuku’s passion for rugby increased and his talent was seen and nurtured.
His flair during that time earned him the moniker “Cooper”, after his childhood hero Quade Cooper.
“I earned that nickname initially when we played some touch rugby at hostel after supper. I had a mean side-step and would imitate Quade Cooper in the way I played. That was around the time Cooper was at his best and the Reds won Super Rugby in 2011, and the nickname stuck with me.
“Cooper is one of the players that inspired me to bring the running game into my own rugby. My other rugby hero is Morne Steyn. I grew up with no DSTV (pay television) and had to wait for the delayed matches on the national broadcaster (SABC) to watch Morne Steyn, whom I really admired. He is the one who inspired my kicking game. So it is a balance of Steyn’s kicking game and Cooper’s running game that I always wanted to implement in my own game.”
Masuku’s first break came when he was nearing his high schooling and Leopards Rugby coach, Melusi Mthethwa, was so impressed with the young man that he ensured that he joined the Potchefstroom-based union post-matric.
“It was at the Leopards that I was given freedom to express myself on the field, and I gained confidence,” said Masuku.
“I then played Under-19 Currie Cup, and faced some big unions with players who had come from big schools and were highly regarded. I got a big boost in confidence when I realised that I was playing very well against them. It was at this point that I realised that it was not impossible to take my career far.”
From the Leopards, the pivot moved on to the Lions until December 2018 – the period he found most challenging in his career, sitting without a contract and battling to find a new club.
It was only at the end of January this year that the Leopards came knocking again, offering a “50/50” contract which would see Masuku play club rugby for Impala Rugby Club in the Gold Cup and, if the opportunity arose, he would also play for the provincial union.
“Nothing else was coming and it was the only option I had at the time, and I took it at the beginning of February. I packed my belongings from home in Paulpietersburg and went to Rustenburg,” he said.
“I played in the Gold Cup for Impala, and we went on to win it. I then joined the Leopards for the SuperSport Challenge.”
His misfortune then continued when he injured his shoulder having played only one match for the Leopards in the SuperSport Challenge.
While it seemed he had again reached a dead-end in his career, he remained hopeful.
It was an Instagram conversation with Isuzu Southern Kings’ Athletic Performance Coordinator, Sean O’Dea, that sparked a career revival for Masuku.
“I was struggling with a shoulder injury and was quite bleak,” he remembers.
“I was quite set on joining the Isuzu Southern Kings and contacted Sean on Instagram. It was that conversation that led to a phone call from [Isuzu Southern Kings Director of High Performance] Robbi Kempson.
“That was the break I needed. Even though it was tough joining the team on a trial with a shoulder injury. But Coach Robbi and the Kings were very patient with me.
“It really means a lot to me to have this opportunity. If I were to describe it after the challenges I’ve faced, I’d say it feels like a bottle that has been closed for a while and has been continuously shaken and is now open.
“I don’t take this for granted and want to make the most of the opportunities that come my way at the Kings. My focus right now is to stay fit, take it a step at a time and focus on getting as much game time as possible. The rest will take care of itself.”