How Rassie’s words helped Notshe

A change in mindset has helped Sikhumbuzo Notshe begin to realise his immense potential, writes MIKE GREENAWAY in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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When Notshe joined the Sharks late last year, assistant coach David Williams asked him a question that has played a significant role in the staggering reinvention of the No 8’s career.

The 26-year-old had arrived in Durban from Cape Town with his career in the balance. Seven years at Western Province had seen him rise to Springbok status but by the end of 2019 he had sunk to playing off the bench in the Currie Cup, with younger players such as Juarno Augustus and Jaco Coetzee having overtaken him.

Williams, a much-travelled attack coach who has worked with the Bath, London Irish, the Cheetahs, Kings and Kobe Steelers, asked Notshe: ‘What are you doing here at the Sharks? Why have you come here?’

Notshe tells SA Rugby magazine he found it a ‘bizarre’ question.

‘He asked me to write the answer down in my diary and bring it to him the next day,’ Notshe recalls. ‘I wrote the usual stuff such as more game time, the desire to showcase my talents and so on. When he read it he said: “OK, but what do you really want to achieve here. I’m giving you two minutes to draw a picture of who you want to be …”’

Notshe presented him with a sketch of a Shark running, similar to the Sharks badge, and at the back of the Shark he wrote the words, ‘In full flight!!!!’

Williams approved. This was something he could work with. He told Notshe to be a Shark in full flight in every possible way.

‘He said: “We are going to meet every Monday to discuss whether you were in full flight right through the week until the final whistle of the game.” He wanted me to be nervous for every training session, to own each session, and then the games would take care of themselves …’

Seven rounds of Super Rugby later, Notshe’s exhilarating form has been one of the glowing positives of the overall South African challenge. He has been nothing short of sensational in turning around his career, in the process reminding Rassie Erasmus of why he made Notshe a Bok in 2018 and, also, there are the symbolic ‘twos-up’ to the Stormers/WP selectors that lost faith in him.

Which brings us to this question: what went wrong for Notshe at a union he joined straight out of Wynberg Boys’ High and served loyally until the age of 26?

He admits there was a degree of being in a comfort zone but says it goes much deeper than that. He talks of a ‘grey cloud’ that hung over him at Newlands and that cloud was the allegation of a lack of physicality in his game.

‘This didn’t seem to be an issue under Allister Coetzee and 2016 under him was my best season of senior rugby. Fleckie [Robbie Fleck] was the assistant and at that stage he was fond of me and how I played … But things changed,’ Notshe recalls.

‘Eddie Jones was supposed to take over but then it was Fleckie and I thought it would be a smooth transition for me because he had rated me, but it went pear-shaped — Gert Smal [former director of rugby at WP] said I lacked physicality, and then Fleckie was saying the same thing.

‘It was frustrating because they could never break the word down. I was left in the dark trying to figure out what physicality was … Were they saying I can’t tackle? I can’t move people at the rucks? My carries were not strong enough?

‘Youngsters started coming through and passing me, and I did not know what was going on. This grey cloud was hanging over me and I didn’t know if it would pass.’

Notshe’s frustration mounted. After his stellar 2016 season he had been called up to the greater Bok squad and played for the SA A team against England’s Saxons, but he was struggling to get a start in Cape Town.

In desperation he seconded himself to the Blitzboks, playing several matches for them in the 2017-18 season.

‘I went to sevens to try to improve on what they said I lacked but when I returned I sat on the bench for nine weeks. I am not one to blame coaches and if you are on the bench you have to deal with it, but it got me down that there was no communication. An important thing that nine weeks taught me was resilience, staying in the fight. You can’t be selfish and become a cancer in the team.’

And yet, that 20 minutes Notshe received each game was enough to impress Rassie Erasmus.

‘I won’t lie; when I got invited to the Bok alignment camp, I was shocked. Why was I there when I had hardly been playing? I got my first cap in 2018 against Wales in Washington and played six Tests in that year, with Rassie picking me for his Barbarians team at the end of the year.’

Notshe said one of the biggest confidence boosts he has had was when Erasmus told him to not try to be another Duane Vermuelen but to be himself.

‘Rassie told me he had played Test rugby as a 96kg flank, so he was not the biggest but was a great player, and it helped that I could just be me and not try to be a big bruiser. I can look up to Duane but I don’t have to try and be him.’

Notshe’s worst enemy could not have scripted a more disastrous 2019 for him. He tore shoulder ligaments and then in a comeback three months later he injured an ankle.

‘That was it, I was done. No chance of making the World Cup for me. Would I have made the Bok squad if I hadn’t got injured? Only Rassie knows but all I had wanted was my body to give me a chance to compete with the best loose forwards in the country.’

At the end of last year, the frustrated, disappointed Noshe knew his career was at the crossroads. Big decisions had to be made and the process had already started after he had bumped into Sean Everitt on the Kings Park pitch after WP had lost there in a round-two Currie Cup match.

Notshe had played off the bench and after the final whistle he was striding quickly to the change room in a foul mood when he saw the Sharks coach.

‘I was pissed off we had lost and as I got to the touchline I saw Sean. I had to quickly ditch my expression of disgust and congratulate him on the win. I told him it was a different Sharks team to the one that had been pumped the week before against Griquas. He asked why I wasn’t playing and then asked if I would be interested in joining the Sharks.’

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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At the conclusion of Super Rugby last year, the Sharks lost a raft of loose forwards, including rugged players in Philip van der Walt and the Du Preez twins, Dan and Jean-Luc. New coach Sean Everitt needed experienced reinforcements, but also newcomers who would suit a game different from the direct approach of the Robert du Preez era.

Notshe fitted the bill perfectly.

‘We felt we needed to change the way we play and Notshe wasn’t getting game time at the Stormers. They have so many good loose forwards and they also play differently to us. We want forwards — especially loose forwards — that can link with the backs in counter-attack, and we anticipated Notshe could do that for us.’

Everitt was spot-on. It has been a marriage made in rugby heaven. The Sharks were top of the Super Rugby standings when the pause button was hit and Notshe has been one of their best players.

‘We’ve seen how explosive a ball-carrier he can be. He has such good feet and speed off the mark, but he is also good in the close exchanges. He gets stuck in.

‘You have to say he was the stand-out South African loose forward [at the start of Super Rugby] because of his all-round ability and high work rate.’

Everitt says he has been impressed with Notshe’s willingness to engage with the coaching staff.

‘He is studious, he works very hard on his own analysis and is always looking for feedback. He comes to us with his perceptions of his games. He adds a lot in team meetings, he has undoubted leadership qualities and hopefully he will get a chance to be captain.

‘Everything for us is about work rate. If I was to be hypercritical, I feel he can still do more. With his skills and pace, the more he has the ball in hand the more useful he is to the team.’