There is no monster of the deep more terrifying than the one unseen, and in Ntuthuko Mchunu the Cell C Sharks have a lurking Beast.
Ox Nche has taken over the Sharks No 1 jersey made famous by retired Springboks centurion Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, who played 117 Tests for the Boks between 2008 and 2019. Nche was impressive last year with his opportunities in the green and gold to take on the British & Irish Lions, and the jovial prop’s following among rugby supporters has ballooned with every light-hearted engagement on social media.
The fan favourite will have his eyes to the front as he endeavours to keep Steven Kitshoff on the Bok bench and retain his job as South Africa’s starting loosehead prop, but he will also need eyes in the back of his head to see off the threat to his hegemony rising from the Sharks bench.
Like Mtawarira, Mchunu’s rugby journey started in the loose trio, where his power manifested in heavy duty carries and shuddering collisions for Maritzburg College. However, his high-school coaches took the view that the career prospects of the 1.88-metre Mchunu would be brighter in the front row than as a loose forward.
Former Sharks coach Dick Muir famously switched a 1.88m loose forward to prop in 2006, the change launching the illustrious career of none other than Mtawarira, and it is fitting that the success of South Africa’s most-capped prop was instrumental in Mchunu’s decision to move to the front of the scrum.
To some extent, the second-year professional is still learning his trade as an attacking scrum weapon and Sharks coach Sean Everitt has taken the long view to his development. Mchunu started only four matches during the 2021-22 Vodacom United Rugby Championship and was limited to less than 30 minutes in each of the remaining 14 matches for the Durbanites.
Mchunu’s starting debut came against former Cheetahs and now Ospreys tighthead prop Tom Botha, as he put in a 60-minute shift in a 27-13 win at Swansea Stadium. After a loss in Cardiff, the Sharks backtracked to Durban where Everitt gave the young powerhouse his third successive start in a 30-16 win over the visiting Vodacom Bulls.
Even though Mchunu’s contribution in the regular season was limited to 500 minutes, his immense value in the loose has stuck out.
Combining surprising athleticism with raw force in contact, Mchunu’s play evokes memories of Mtawarira’s early years as a fearsome front ranker. If there’s any weight in the comparison, Nche is soon going to have his hands full.