A small favour for a rival club ended Siyanda Grey’s rugby career. But before we get to the end, let’s start at the beginning. The 31-year-old took his first rugby steps at Tails Rugby Football Club in his hometown of Komga in the Eastern Cape.
The club, established in 1972, holds a special place in Grey’s heart. His uncle, Alfred Grey, played for it and throughout our conversation in East London, Siyanda constantly refers to it as “my club”. As much as he tried to move away from rugby, the sport followed him at every turn. While in Mdantsane looking for a job after completing his matric in 2007, he played for Swallows Rugby Club. But he would get his big break in Port Elizabeth, now called Gqeberha, where he had also moved for a job.
“After arriving in Port Elizabeth, I heard of Eastern Province Under-19 trials and decided to give it a go and I was lucky enough to get in and that was the beginning of my professional rugby career at the Kings,” says Grey. “I then played Under-21s in 2009 and got called up to the seniors at the end of that season.”
Grey’s talent was evident from a young age. Despite being short, he was powerfully built with a deft sidestep and a mean fend that made him a nightmare to parry at outside centre and, later in his career, on the wing. He was poised for rugby stardom with the Southern Kings, but his body just refused to let him reach those heights.
“I had some good games in the Vodacom Cup and I was called up by Paul Treu to the 7s [national team] camp, the fitness was hectic,” Grey says with a laugh. “I adjusted though and started to enjoy it and I was on course to go to Dubai with the team, but I injured my groin and I had to go back to Eastern Province.”
Grey would go on to represent the Emerging Springboks 7s side in Kenya in 2010. That would be the only time he wore the green and gold. His career would soon be curtailed by multiple injuries, including anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries on both his knees – the first of which came slap-bang in the middle of a 2011 season that truly gave him belief that he would go on to do great things on the rugby field.
“Being a part of the South African Kings team that played in the 2011 IRB Nations Cup was awesome, not only because we won, but because of what I achieved on a personal level. I was the top try-scorer and Player of the Tournament,” Grey says with a broad smile.
“This was happening in a team that had Springboks flanker Luke Watson, Blitzbok legends Mpho Mbiyozo and Mzwandile Stick, yet somehow I got the plaudits and my confidence soared. Up to that point the injuries had been niggly more than long term, but four games into the Currie Cup I did my ACL and I was out for close to a year. After that it seemed like I could not string together a run of games without being sidelined.”
The hours of rehab and not being able play took its toll on him. He was frustrated, angry and hurt. “It was tough dealing with all of these injuries especially with my support system so far from me, I would be fine around teammates, but when I was alone it would eat me up not being able to play for such long periods,” Grey explains.
“One of the reasons [then Kings coach] Deon Davids didn’t select me often in Super Rugby was because he felt I was not going hard enough in the training contact sessions and honestly I wasn’t, but the thought of getting injured in training was always lingering on my mind. You see I did not mind going full-on in a match situation, but in training it was different. In the end the coach had to do what he felt was best for the team and he did so.”
Falling in love with rugby again
His contract with the Southern Kings wasn’t renewed at the end of 2017. The following year he opted to return home after playing for Eastern Province Kings in the Supersport Rugby Challenge where they were paid only match fees.
While settling back into life in Komga, a club from East London came knocking, asking about his services. He jumped at the chance to get back on the field and featured prominently in a successful 2019 Super 12 competition for East London Police.
“He was definitely the main catalyst behind Police’s victorious campaign,” says Hlathi Phumelele, who was the tournament director. “You could see that he was coming from a professional rugby setup, it showed in his dominance in the midfield.”
Grey found bliss in the game again but his old nemesis, injury, came back to spoil things. During a short break after winning the Super 12, Grey went home to rest and recuperate before he was to return to Police for an Easter tournament. He was asked by the Tails coach to come help them out in a friendly match in Mooiplaas, a neighbouring township. He was happy to do so, but he ended up playing for their rivals Cranes Rugby Club when Tails were late.
“I was just unlucky. I went in for the tackle using the correct technique, but a few nerves endings from the neck connected to the arm were pulled and disconnected leaving me with a paralysed arm,” a visibly emotional Grey says. “It was in April. I just can’t seem to recall the date. I thought that I could help them out and play while I waited for Tails to arrive, but it turned out to be the last time I would play rugby.”
A natural right hander, Grey has had to learn to use his left hand in the limited things that he can do with only one arm. “At times I struggle to even write the letter S when writing my name, because for 30 years my left hand has simply been to support my right hand,” Grey explains.
“I burnt my fingers with hot water and did not notice, because there is no feeling [in the right hand]. I only noticed when someone told me I was burning myself. At that point I knew I could not even try to find work elsewhere with this arm, it would not only be impossible to work, I could harm myself. To kill time, I was assisting with the coaching at Tails before Covid-19, but coaching requires the coach to be hands-on, so even with that it feels like I am not contributing sufficiently.”
Rugby gave Grey the opportunity to be a provider and he revelled in it. The end of his professional rugby career didn’t mean the end of his days as a provider. Grey didn’t mind going from rugby star to finding a “normal” job. The sport had always been somewhat of an unintended path. But now that he doesn’t have rugby, or the ability to provide for his family, this has hit him hard.
“The difficulty with coming from rural areas is we have no financial guidance on how to save for the future. I was lucky to earn a living from rugby, but due to having to provide for home and my own living expenses, I could never save much,” Grey says. “Now I rely on the same family to help me out which is okay because I live with them and they understand my predicament, but having to rely on them [family] to help out with my kids does not sit well with me.”
Shortly after he lost the use of his arm he became a father once more, to a boy, Athobe. “I missed out on being a hands-on father with my older kids and with this boy it was the first time I got to be around to see him grow up, but I could not even hold him when he was a baby because of my one arm,” Grey says. “It’s those small things that weigh heavily on your mind, not being able to hold your own child or working to feed and clothe them is not something you can ever imagine happening until you get into a situation like this.”
Not all hope is lost though, because part of his arm now has feeling from the shoulder to the elbow. After he was finally able to get medical help, it is only his forearm that remains without feeling.
“I was able to get help in Cape Town at Groote Schuur Hospital after being unsuccessful here in the Eastern Cape,” Grey says, looking slightly more positive. “In February [last year] I went to Cape Town for surgery to repair the nerve endings. The doctors are positive that I will regain feeling soon. The positive feedback has given me more motivation to fight through this period, it is no longer about me alone. I want to be the best father, brother and son I can be and that [can] only truly happen when my arm comes right.”