Maties Rugby captain’s quiet leadership stems from personal battles off the field

Humble and soft-spoken, Matt Gray may, at first glance, seem like an unlikely skipper for the Maties Rugby team taking part in this year’s FNB Varsity Cup, which is currently underway. He is one of only a handful of English-speaking captains in the team’s more than 100-year history, and he hails from Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – not one of the traditional feeder schools for rugby at Stellenbosch University (SU).

But then the 1,97-metre lock is not someone easily bothered by convention or challenge. At the age of six, he overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma, although it took him out of sport for a while, and later, at the age of 14, he battled with immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a rare autoimmune disorder affecting his blood’s ability to clot properly.  Ironically, he says it was this second health test that really jumpstarted his rugby career. “I got into the gym to build myself up and then my rugby took off again.”

He went on to play for his high school’s first team in 2018, and he was commended for his defensive and offensive abilities and awarded the Players’ Player Award. Gray played more than 50 games for this team. Also in that year, he was approached by Maties Rugby coach Kabamba Floors, who was then head coach for the Young Guns, to play rugby for the University. Gray admits SU was not the natural choice as most of his school friends opted to study nearby at the University of Cape Town, and his parents had studied at Wits. But he decided to take the leap because he had heard that SU was the “place to be” as a student, and it was also the perfect springboard for a burgeoning rugby career.

The decision to follow his own path paid off and Gray, now in his final year of a BSc in Agriscience, is captain of the Maties Rugby team, where he says he has been welcomed with open arms. Rugby has always been an interest, he says. “As South Africans, we grow up watching rugby. It is built into us (from a young age). But it was only at the end of Grade 9 when I really started to see it as a realistic career path.”

For inspiration within the Springbok camp, Gray looks to Pieter-Steph du Toit – man of the match in the nail-biting Rugby World Cup 2023  final against New Zealand. “He displays a lot of what I want to become as a player. Like him, I like to put my head down and get to work. I see the most results when I get to work and start grinding on the field.” Leading a team has been a “big adjustment” for Gray, who describes himself as a “quiet guy in the change room and in general”. As a man of “fewer words”, he says he rather lets others who are more vocal take the lead. “And then I step in when needed with a few sharp words to get the guys going.”

His quiet leadership has been tested with the Intervarsity Cup campaign, which started off with Maties losing 23-12 to defending champions, FNB NWU Eagles. After that sobering defeat on home ground at the Danie Craven Stadium, Gray says he advised his team to just focus on the next job. “It is easy to get caught up in a loss. But one thing our team is good at is bouncing back.” The team talk paid off, and Maties has since defeated Ikeys on their home ground 15-10 and most recently, Wits 23-12.

While he’s focused on the “next job” of bringing the Varsity Cup home, Gray also has his sights set on a career in rugby. “The Stormers would be great, but I am happy to start at a smaller rugby union and build from there.” Long-term, when rugby is one day no longer an option, he sees himself working in the agricultural field – and hopefully owning his own indoor farm in a few years’ time.

By Anel Lewis

Stellenbosch University CCMD