From a small town in Natal to dominating in France. Phendulani “Phepsi” Hendrick Buthelezi is a success story to be heard…and he’s only 19. Renny Man sat down with the Sharks u19 captain and SA u20 player to chat about his tough and calculated road so far. Watch him play, and you will see that he is physical, brave and an all-round conditioned athlete. Sit down with him, and you will see that he is intelligent, mature and humble beyond his years. We find out more.
Being left out of the Jnr Boks side then called up to be in the starting line-up (and playing superbly). What did this mean to you?
- It was a massive thing for me because I was heartbroken when I didn’t make the squad, but after the coach spoke to me and he gave me his reasons why I wasn’t in the squad, I kind of understood why. But then, when I got called up it was really a sudden thing for me, I really didn’t expect it. It was a special moment because I’ve always pictured myself playing for the Junior Boks in 2018. So when it happened, it was like all my prayers had come true.
Regarding DHS (your alma mater). They’ve been at most an average team in recent history. In your matric year you beat Glenwood and Maritzburg College and were in the top 20 in South Africa. How did this happen?
- I think the DHS community as a whole got tired of being known as the average school. In the 90’s DHS was a strong rugby school. So I think it was just a matter of bringing in the right structures, the right people, the right coaches and I think my 1st team coach from last year, Mr. Scott Mathie played a massive role in that. Our conditioning got better, we actually had conditioning coaches. I mean DHS was never really known for running rugby, but from last year, and this year as well, we’re known as that exciting team that plays THAT exciting brand of rugby. So for me, what really changed was the structures and the people who were in place.
Did Scott Mathie help you individually or was he mostly focused on the team?
- He could help both as a team and individually (reaching goals and getting better week by week). I think Mr. Scott Mathie is a very special coach and as long as he is there, DHS is in great hands. People actually haven’t seen anything yet.
From Hluhluwe, to playing on the big stages. What challenges did you have to face to be where you are now?
- Firstly, to go back in time. Coming from Hluhluwe, it’s a very small and laidback town, to attending DHS, which is a school in the city, I had to get used to this different lifestyle. It was firstly trying to adapt, and the way people did things. When I first got here it was too fast for me but I just hung around the right people and that way I just got my head around things. Coming from a small town to a big stage like that is better for me, because you appreciate getting there a bit more. When I played in the semi-final, it wasn’t just me playing for SA, I was representing ‘Hluhluwe Town’. It wasn’t just me or my family, but the whole of Hluhluwe playing against England. I must say it was a massive privilege for me, I’m just glad that I was from such a special town because when I got back home they welcomed me back, they sang for me, and it’s just things like that make you want to do big things for your town.
And how did you manage to not get lost in the city?
- Knowing where you come from and knowing where you want to go. People always want to tell you to ‘know where you want to go’ but don’t mention that you do get distractions along the way. I was lucky because I had a few friends that also came from Zululand (same region). When we were this side we always told ourselves that ‘we don’t come from privileged backgrounds, so let’s stick together’. Distractions would come, people would want us to go out. It’s just having someone constantly reminding you of where you came from and where you want to go.
What’s your favourite moment in your career so far?
- 3rd/4th playoff win against NZ. Quite special for me, that break that I got in the game had to be the highlight of my career.
And how was it facing the Haka?
- It was pretty cool. I was standing there watching thinking “wow this is cool”; I wasn’t scared after watching it, it was just a cool thing to watch.
Any pre-game routines? Superstitions?
- What I normally like to do is from the Monday until I get to the game, is make sure that I prepare well, I train well, I go over my roles. Being captain you always want to be the one who knows everything. And besides the practicing part of it, I’m a person who prays a lot, so I would pray a lot leading up to the game and make sure that my mother knows that I’m playing, where I’m playing, and who I’m playing against.
- If we play on the weekend, we’ll come in on the Monday and watch our game, what we did right or wrong. Then after that we will analyse the opposition and take it into training until Wednesday. From Thursday onwards, we focus on ourselves and how were going to go into the game and what we want to do.
Plan going forward? (Both in rugby and life?)
- For me at the moment, I want to make sure that I keep studying. A lot of rugby players stop studying when they break through. Rugby wise, I want to be knocking on the door for the senior team, that’s where I want to play, on the big stages, I want people to come here (Kingspark Stadium) and watch me. I want to have a solid degree to my name, I’m studying Civil Engineering through UNISA. I haven’t had a problem with time management because I was Head-boy of DHS last year and I’m used to being really busy all the time.
How has your involvement in sport impacted your life holistically?
- It’s put me ahead of a lot of people, but I don’t get time to hang around with friends, and if I do it’s probably on a Friday afternoon but I can’t hangout for long because I usually have a game the next day. But rugby has put me ahead in terms of me having access to good schools, like DHS, I got a full scholarship to it. So I think if it wasn’t for rugby, I wouldn’t be able to go to a good traditional school like that. But I think on a social level I’m behind because I’m always so busy going on tours so my friends do complain sometimes; but because they know where I want to go they accept that things are the way they are because it’s how I want to live my life.
- [with regards to traveling and touring and seeing places] I’ve spoken to junior sharks and springboks before me and they say that back then, you travel somewhere, you stay in the hotel, you play and then you leave. But with us it’s a bit different, we get to see places, not just the rugby side of it. When you go out you get your mind off the game because thinking too much about the game can also be bad for you so when the coaches tell you to go out and get some off time, I think it helps.
What advice could you give kids from small towns with few resources? Mentality and training wise?
- Firstly, whatever you want in life…you have to work hard for it. People talk about “yeah I’m going to work hard for this, I’m going to work hard for that”, but they don’t actually know the amount of sacrifice and the hours of training that you have to put into it, they just say “yeah I’m going to work hard”. For me it’s about being honest with yourself, ask yourself “am I working as hard as I possibly can to make a sports team, to get that degree, or even pass matric?” Coming from a small town, know where you from, know where you going and hang around people that are good for you, because the people that you hang around can make or break you. Be okay with sacrificing, you’re not going to be the coolest guy, out at every party, but when you look back and you where you wanted to be…it will be all worth it.