Trevor Nyakane would have made a good middle linebacker if he had played American football instead of rugby.
It’s a beautiful autumn day at FedEx Field in the US capital, and the NFL’s leading runner in 2013, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean 'Shady' McCoy, is feeling great as he takes a hand-off from his quarterback on the Washington 42-yard line.
The joy is fleeting.
Less than two seconds later he frantically searches the cloudless sky for oxygen after Redskins middle linebacker Trevor Nyakane torpedoes into his knees, sending the running back into an involuntary somersault, and the home crowd into a frenzy.
While this play is pure fiction, Nyakane shares some of the raw tools that helped London Fletcher anchor Washington’s defence for seven seasons.
Fletcher is one of only four players in the history of the game to make more than 250 consecutive starts – an impressive feat considering that he is approximately 10cm shorter than the average NFL linebacker, and the average player’s career lasts less than 65 games (four seasons).
A punter tops that list with 352 consecutive starts, but while New York Giants punter Jeff Feagles spent most of his time chilling on the sidelines, Fletcher completed more than 1,700 tackles over the course of his career.
That’s a number that would make Nyakane’s mouth water. 'I love tackling people!' the prop said shortly after being called up to the Springbok squad last year.
Fletcher doesn’t have prototypical size, but he survived and thrived in the NFL thanks to his athletic ability and football IQ. Nyakane is on a similar path in rugby – he’s found a way to survive and thrive in the front row.
Free State scrum coach Os du Randt describes Nyakane as a 'safe scrummager', but lauds the Tzaneen-born prop for his power-running ability. In reality, Nyakane is a short loose forward who has bulked up to make the grade in the front row.
He’s 4cm shorter than Heinrich Brüssow, but would easily trump the diminutive Bok fetcher’s numbers in a plyometric test, if he showed up at his fighting weight.
In most cases, rugby players would need to bulk up to play football. Nyakane would have to shed around 15kg to rediscover the mobility required at the middle (or 'Mike') linebacker position.
Remember, Nyakane was a standout soccer player as a junior.
'He was a better soccer player than a rugby player,' said his high school coach. 'He did play rugby, but made the first team for soccer and was the soccer player of the year at our school two years in a row.'
Nyakane could also 'run like the wind', according to his dad, and he inevitably gravitated towards rugby because he liked the camaraderie.
An innate appetite for tackling, a powerful frame, and a soccer-like appreciation for identifying where spaces are developing would make Nyakane a natural thumper at the middle linebacker position.
Add the 25-year-old’s gregarious personality to the mix, and you’ve got a team man and an inspirational defensive captain. With the smarts to sniff out where the ball is going, the raw athleticism to get there first, and the mentality to make the ball-carrier pay for it, Nyakane would quickly emerge as a fan-favourtie, and a Pro Bowl middle linebacker.