Ox Nche made a decisive career move to the Sharks and finds himself firmly on the Springbok radar, writes MIKE GREENAWAY in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
One of the many pleasing things for the table-topping Sharks at the pause of Super Rugby would have been the rich payback they had received from the players head-hunted in the ‘off-season’.
Last year coach Sean Everitt and chief executive officer Eduard Coetzee agreed on the players they wanted to complement their style of play in Super Rugby in 2020 – a fast-paced, counter-attacking game based on turnover ball won from aggressive contesting of the breakdowns – and openside flank James Venter (Lions), No 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Stormers) and loosehead prop Ox Nche (Cheetahs) were brought to the Shark Tank.
Venter has been a combative menace at the breakdowns, Notshe superb in his linking play and Nche has revelled in meeting the challenge of filling the boots of the mighty Tendai Mtawarira – to the extent that he has surely played his way back on to the Springbok radar.
Nche has a solitary Bok cap – he started in the ill-fated friendly against Wales in Washington in June 2018 – but has played no national role since. Steven Kitshoff and Trevor Nyakane (who can play both sides of the front row) would be ahead of Nche in the No 1 jersey pecking order but, on form, Nche is pressing hard for at least a place on the bench.
No less a luminary than the Beast himself has been in awe of Nche’s energetic displays in Sharks colours, and that is praise to be dearly valued.
Mtawarira, talking to SA Rugby magazine, said: ‘A lot of players have put their hands up at the Sharks this year but one who has really caught my eye is the guy who replaced me. Ox has done a great job since coming in from the Cheetahs. I love the way he goes about his game.’
For Nche, replacing Mtawarira was always going to be a beast of a task but he has the ingredients to be a crowd favourite. At 1.73m and 114kg he is just about as wide as he is tall, resembling an oversized medicine ball, yet he is highly mobile and everybody loves a rotund prop bustling about with the ball, steam-rolling defenders.
Of course, that revives memories of another famous Free State prop imported to KZN, Ollie le Roux, the roly-poly, burger-munching loosehead who was adored by the Kings Park faithful because of his athletic skills at odds with his bodily shape.
Born and bred in Bloemfontein 24 years ago, Nche’s first name is Retshegofaditswe … little wonder the user-friendly nickname ‘Ox’ quickly stuck. He was schooled at HTS Louis Botha, an unfashionable rugby school for whom AJ Venter – a famous Cheetahs recruit to the Sharks via the Lions – is their best known product, while other alumni Raymond Rhule and Oupa Mahoje have also worn the green and gold.
Nche amassed 97 caps for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup, Pro14 and a handful of Super Rugby games, before joining that well-worn conveyor belt to the Sharks. Why did he do it?
Primarily because he desperately wants to add to that solitary Springbok cap.
‘You watch that World Cup final in Japan last year and you think: “I want to be there. What can I do differently so that I can be there? I never want to watch a World Cup from home again”.’
Moving from Pro14 into the Super Rugby spotlight was the natural move.
‘I chose the Sharks because of the way they aimed to play under Sean Everitt and I felt it was not dissimilar to how the Cheetahs play,’ Nche explains. ‘They are the right union for me at this time when I am looking for a change of scenery to give my career a boost.
‘I felt that at this juncture in my career I wanted to be among World Cup winners, and already I have felt the benefit of that,’ he says. ‘Some might think that guys like Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am would be relaxed and comfortable after what they achieved at the World Cup but they have said after some of our sessions: “That was not good enough … Let’s do it again.”’
Nche says he learned much in the northern hemisphere and is adding the nuances of the southern hemisphere approach to rugby.
‘For my position and front-row play in general, the two competitions are different – the Pro14 is massively set-piece oriented,’ he says. ‘The belief is that the tight-five forwards win you games and the focus is heavily on that area. In Super Rugby everybody gets a touch of the ball in what is a more fluid and open game. That is the big difference.’
Nche had a taste of Super Rugby when he was a teenager. He had played SA Schools in 2012 and 2013; SA U20 in 2015, and was fast-tracked into the Cheetahs’ senior side only for them to be ditched from Super Rugby when the South African representation was cut to four teams.
The Cheetahs headed north and Nche impressed sufficiently to be selected for SA A in 2017 and for the disappointing 22-20 defeat in Washington that marked Rassie Erasmus’ first match as Springbok coach in 2018.
‘I am in a better place to deal with Super Rugby now because I have learned so much about set-piece play in the Pro14 and I know what I have to improve on. Super Rugby is a uniquely southern hemisphere competition and I enjoy the rugby.
‘The north is a lot more tactical. You know exactly what they are going to do in a specific part of the field and they will go 25 phases until they break you down or tire you out.
‘In Super Rugby, if something is 50-50 on, you are encouraged to go for it … I feel like the team in possession is more evasive whereas in the north, they just come at you.’
Shortly before Super Rugby shut down, one of the last tries scored was by Andre Esterhuizen against the Jaguares at Kings Park, but the crowd roared loudest when they saw it was Nche who swung a long pass to free up the centre. Props don’t typically pass like backs, and Nche admits he enjoyed it.
‘There has been growth in my game and that is why I came to the Sharks. Dave Williams is an amazing attack coach. I went to him and said: “This area of my game needs improving” and he replied: “Right, this is how we are going to fix it.”
Sharks head coach Sean Everitt cannot speak highly enough of Nche’s contribution to the Sharks this season.
‘Ox came to us with a big shadow to fill and we have been blown away by the effort he has put into the cause. When you combine that with his natural skills, his contribution has been huge,’ Everitt said.
‘We knew from watching him at the Cheetahs that he is an explosive player with a high work rate, unusual pace for a big guy and impressive ball skills – and we saw all of that in the seven rounds of the competition, and then some. I just believe he got better and better every week.’
During the extended lockdown, Everitt had the opportunity to scrutinise every minute of the Sharks’ play this season and the analysis has boosted Nche’s reputation.
‘It is the work off the ball that tells you how much effort a player is putting in, and when I see Ox sprinting back 50m to see if he can help, even though the try looks certain to be scored, I realise this player is giving his all for the jersey.
‘Because of that effort, Ox is one of those players who has at least one big moment every game, whether it is chasing down a backline player from behind to make a telling tackle or sending a try-making pass out to a backline player. His line speed on defence is also outstanding.’
During the Sharks’ overseas tour, half an hour before kick-off against the Hurricanes, tighthead Thomas du Toit cried off with illness and Nche had to step up to cover an unfamiliar position.
‘And he scrummed really well at tighthead, showing his versatility,’ Everitt recalls. ‘He is one of those happy, obliging team men who is a pleasure to have in your squad.’