From the mag: Nyakane’s blessing in disguise

Powerful prop Trevor Nyakane is a happy, motivated man on and off the field, writes BRENDEN NEL in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

There aren’t too many players who would see a World Cup-ending injury as a positive thing, but for Bulls and Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane, no matter what curveballs were sent his way during 2019, there was always going to be a smile on his face.

Nyakane has started the new season as a man intent on regaining his Springbok starting spot and is relishing the changes in his life over the past few months.

The smile on his face is as wide as it has ever been, not only because he is a bona-fide World Cup winner, but more because he is a dad.

He jokes with teammates and friends, sending them a clip from the action comedy Bad Boys to illustrate his point. In the clip Martin Lawrence’s daughter’s date arrives at the front door to pick her up, and Will Smith and Lawrence produce a hilarious good cop, bad cop routine to scare the youngster.

If you’ve seen the clip you’ll probably be giggling right now, as Nyakane was doing when he explained how he could see himself in that situation.

‘I’m like, this is definitely me in 18 years’ time. I think I will be that guy,’ he laughs.

‘When she’s 18 I’ll be in my 40s and I probably won’t have the energy. But at this point in time, that’s my thinking. I’m really hoping she will be a good girl.’

The birth of Nyakane’s daughter Thando has been a massive part of his journey over the past year, so much so that it overshadowed his World Cup medal. Nyakane had to ask coach Rassie Erasmus’ permission to fly home before the tournament began to be at the birth of his daughter. The coach gladly obliged, but it was a whirlwind trip.

‘I was very excited about the birth of my daughter, even though I knew it was going to be difficult with the World Cup on at the same time. Getting to Japan was an amazing achievement, we worked the whole year for that moment, to be in that squad, but I knew I had to do right by my daughter. It wasn’t her fault for arriving when she did. Fortunately for me the doctor scheduled the C-section for the week after the warm-up game in Japan.

‘Being there for the birth of your daughter is something special; it only happens once. And it is something my wife probably wouldn’t forgive me for if I missed it,’ he laughs.

‘The coach understood what I was going through. It was a bit of a tight schedule because on the Sunday before the start of the World Cup we had a briefing with the organisers and you had to be present for that if you were going to play the next week. It meant I had to go back to Japan a day after the birth. It was very tough for my wife but she understood. At the end of the day it is rugby that pays for things.’

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Having to leave his wife in the hospital and head back to the team was an emotional moment for the big tighthead prop, but he accepted his fate with a shrug.

‘It was a bit tough and sad at the time. Obviously you want to be there. A woman cannot do much after giving birth and you want to spend some time with the person you brought into this world. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but I was grateful I was there for the birth.’

Nyakane’s World Cup didn’t last long as he tore a calf muscle in a scrum in the opening match against New Zealand. ‘I heard the first tear and I thought perhaps I am just cramping. I took another step forward and it was loud and clear. After that I couldn’t do anything, just hop. I knew it could be the end. The amount of pain I was in was immense.

‘It was something that could happen to anyone, but it was very sad that all the work that put me there was gone.’

Never before has a player been so disappointed, yet so happy that he had to come home.

‘It was a blessing in disguise for me, because I think my daughter needed me to be back home and with her. I knew there was always another player who could fill my spot in the team, but when I leave home there isn’t someone to fill that spot. She probably needed me the most, so I like to look at it that it was a blessing to be able to spend time with her.’

But despite not being part of the entire journey, Nyakane feels worthy of being a World Cup winner.

‘Playing that first game meant a lot and we spoke as a group that whatever was dealt, we would take it as a squad. So yes, I didn’t get to play most of the games, but I feel just as much a part of the team. I stayed in contact and shared my views, even though I couldn’t physically be there.’

Coming back to Super Rugby was a testing time. Rehabilitation sessions were solitary, the fanfare, the parades and the celebrations were gone. It was a long, hard road back. Nyakane knew he needed to buckle down to get back on the field.

‘It still hasn’t sunk in. When Super Rugby started you are brought down to earth quickly and you have to understand it is a new year and a new challenge. But it is still special, when you look at your blazer and your medal, it is something nobody can take away from you.’

A trip back to his home in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga confirmed how much the World Cup meant to people in South Africa. In a football-obsessed community, Nyakane was mobbed as a superstar.

‘It is amazing how people see you and treat you. You would think a lot of people in those communities don’t watch rugby but you will be amazed at how much they do know. I was in Nelspruit recently and you see the joy of people who understand that you put your body on the line.

‘People enjoy these things because it makes them feel part of the bigger picture and it is amazing when you see the smiles on the kids’ faces.’

But now it’s down to work again, doing the hard graft, enjoying the moments and making sure the job at the Bulls is priority. The Boks will follow if the groundwork is done well.

‘The worst thing a player can do is focus on getting back into the Boks. It will be the wrong mentality. First things first; you need to take care of your union and where you are playing. My focus is on trying to sort out whatever problems we have at the Bulls and to be more consistent. If you can sort your union out and do well in Super Rugby, the Springbok honours will come.’

And with a World Cup medal on his wall and his daughter bringing him a bagful of smiles every day, Nyakane couldn’t be in a better spot right now. Motivated and happy, his goal is to become the regular Bok No 3. And nothing will stand in his way.

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‘I won’t lie and say nobody is thinking of the British & Irish Lions tour in 2021. Everyone is thinking about it; you keep hearing about it and it plays a big role. We know it is coming. And when you speak to the guys who have played, they will tell you about the magnitude of playing in that. Even guys who played against them in a union match still feel very proud.

‘It is a race here at the Bulls but we all know that when you run a race you need to know where the finish line is. It is in the future. I will do whatever I can now to make sure that if I get the call-up I am ready. It is still a bit far off, and a week in rugby is a long time. We will hope things go as we planned and I know it is all up to me.’

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Craig Lewis