Not only because she shared a World Rugby Awards invite with Lukhanyo Am, but also as she was one of the nominees at this prestigious event, just like the Springbok midfielder, whose presence brought calm to the shy and soft-spoken Mabenge on her first solo trip abroad.
“I looked around the room and saw so many of the stars in rugby and then realised what a massive year it was for me as well as our Springbok Women in 2022,” recalled Mabenge.
The 26-year-old's try in the second Test against Spain in Potchefstroom on 12 August earned her a nomination in the International Rugby Players Women’s Try of the Year category, eventually won by England's Abby Dow for her five pointer against Canada at the Rugby World Cup.
Mabenge also played at the World Cup in New Zealand, where she scored South Africa’s first try, at Eden Park, against France in the opening game of the global showpiece.
“Yes, it is my job to score tries and I am pleased to do so, but my team also deserved credit for putting me in positions to do so,” said the Nelson Mandela Bay-raised player, who represents the EP Queens in the Women’s Premier Division.
The invite to Monaco provided some solace to Mabenge, who hobbled off the field in pain in their final pool match against England, where she sustained a knee injury that kept her out of action until this week, when she joined the Springbok Women's third training camp of the year.
“One of the first instructions was six weeks rest after the injury, so at least I could enjoy the travel to the awards and a break during the festive season,” said Mabenge at the team hotel in Cape Town.
“But I am ready now to start my return to play protocols. I have complete trust in our medical team, and I know that I will be back on the field as soon as they are happy.”
The evening in the Mediterranean city was not only one to meet and greet with her international peers, but also resulted in an important chat with Am, who was nominated for the World Player of the Year Award.
“He explained how he is using rugby as a platform to do other things as well and it made me realise that I need to do the same,” she said. “There I sat, with an injury, and his words alerted me to the fact that I need something else besides rugby too.”
Mabenge acted on that advice and has enrolled in an engineering course, but she feels that she might end up in the nursing profession.
“I reflected back to where the year started for us, how we travelled the World Cup journey and I was immensely proud to be part of that,” she said.
“From a personal perspective, I managed to become a starter (in the team) and I scored some important tries, which was reward for the hard work by the squad as well.”
Mabenge returned to a much younger looking squad this week, as a number of new players have been drafted into the training squad with the eye on the next Rugby World Cup in England in 2025, where she also hopes to run out in the green and gold.
“Playing in New Zealand last year was a massive honour and I want to experience that again,” she said.
“Also, I have some experience now, even as I travelled to Monaco on my own, I realised that growth, as one always travels overseas with the team, which is a complete different experience.
“But now I realise, being a senior player, I need to step up. I am shy by nature, but I will have to become more vocal on and off the field and to help the younger ones in the squad. In a way, I am looking forward to that, as rugby has given me confidence and the opportunity to express myself, first on the field and now off the field.”
Mabenge was nicknamed 'Sbu'(after Bok wing Sbu Nkosi) by some teammates as she progressed through the ranks with some devastating runs down the right touchline.
But these comparisons are no longer needed, as Mabenge broke clear with her own abilities and uncanny knack to get that ball over the try line. She is also ready to step into the limelight as her own person.
“Yes, no nicknames are needed,” she smiled. “Just call me Nomawethu Mabenge.”