Odwa Ndungane’s loyalty and humility set him apart in South African rugby, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
The Currie Cup final brought down the curtain on the remarkable career of Odwa Ndungane, a living monument of what is good about rugby in South Africa.
It is doubtful we will see another Springbok, or top-class player for that matter, begin and end his career in South Africa. No mandatory venture abroad, not even a payday in Japan during the Currie Cup. Just solid service to the local game from start to finish.
In an era where it is not unheard of for a schoolboy star to go straight from matric to a French club, Ndungane’s first-class career began quietly in East London in 2002 and 15 years later ended in a Currie Cup final defeat to Western Province in Durban.
It seemed to be heading for a fairytale ending at Kings Park for the 36-year-old when he scored a first-half try in his 251st match for the Sharks but the ‘party pooping’ Capetonians overturned the Sharks’ lead at the break to win at a canter.
After the final whistle on the game (and his career), Ndungane, holding his two young children in his arms, was typically humble.
‘That’s rugby, that’s sport,’ he said with a smile. ‘The game has been so good to me. I have nothing to complain about and so much to be grateful for,’ he added before heading for the Kings Park showers for the last time.
Two weeks before, the Sharks had awarded a tribute game to the veteran, the league match between the Sharks and Western Province. The script was that the wing would start the match and then for the semi-finals he would move to the bench for the returning Kobus van Wyk, which transpired. But in the Sharks’ semi-final against the Bulls, one of Ndungane’s prodigies, S’bu Nkosi, dislocated his elbow and it seemed the stars had decreed a fitting final flourish for Ndungane in the Currie Cup decider.
When announced in the Cup final team, he deflected talk of a dream ending to the ‘sad news for S’bu’.
Nkosi will be back for the Sharks and possibly for the Springboks, and he is one of a number of youngsters who have been lucky to benefit from Ndungane’s words of wisdom on rugby and life.
Nkosi refers to Odwa as ‘the Elder’, Lukhanyo Am has described him as ‘the Rev (the Reverend)’, others in the Shark Tank call him ‘Mr Dependable’.
Why is it that the nine-capped Bok never took the financial bait that was offered to him? He and brother Akona certainly had their offers and it is known that one overseas club wanted the twins to join them as a package. It would have been a marketing dream – an Ndungane twin on each wing.
‘I guess the bottom line is that I was always enjoying my rugby too much to want to make a change,’ he says. ‘Rugby has always been good to me. The Sharks have been good to me, and my family here in South Africa have been important to me.’
The twins were born in Mtatha in the Eastern Cape on 20 February 1981. They went to school at Hudson Park in East London before playing three seasons for Border (in the case of Odwa) and Border and Eastern Province (Akona). The pair were signed by the Bulls for the 2004 season and then parted ways. Akona remained at the Bulls for a fine career of his own (he was forced to retire because of injury two years ago) and Odwa moved south to the Sharks.
‘I had a one-year contract with the Bulls and when I was there I had a phone call from [Sharks coach] Kevin Putt asking me to come to the Sharks in 2005,’ he recalls. ‘I needed no second invitation. The Sharks were my team growing up in the Eastern Cape. In the first years of the Super 12 they had an alliance with Eastern Province rugby, so I had supported the Sharks as a youngster.’
He has been in Durban ever since. He went on to join a small band of players who passed the 100-cap mark in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, but it has not always been plain sailing. A number of Sharks coaches have dropped or benched him over the years, but he always bounced back.
‘Rugby teaches you humility. If you sulk each time you are dropped in your career you are not going to get very far,’ he said in April 2014. ‘You take the good with the bad and keep on working as hard as you can. You look after your body. I have always taken care to do the extra stretching and make my appointments with the physio for the rubdowns. I look after my health as best I can. I have seen too many players cut down with serious injury when everything seemed to be going for them. They never saw it coming.’
The attitude of never thinking he is bigger or better than the game has been a cornerstone of his career.
‘I always had a good grounding in that soon into my career I realised the danger of taking fame too seriously,’ he reflected in October. ‘It does not last, not even for the biggest star. One day you will walk down the street and nobody will recognise you. That is life.’
Ndungane’s attitude to life and his vast experience of rugby, especially the nuances of backline play, have made him an invaluable and increasingly unique asset to South African rugby.
The value of experience and mentoring has been highlighted by former Springbok and Sharks captain John Smit. When he was CEO of the Sharks, Smit spoke about the loss of intellectual property to the overseas market and how it had an indirect consequence for the local game.
Smit lamented the fact that so many former Springboks were teaching the tricks of the trade to youngsters in European clubs. In days long past, they would have been passing their knowledge on to South African apprentices.
And therein lies the priceless contribution Ndungane has made to young players by remaining in South Africa.
If there is one thing the youngsters have learned from him, it is to love the game. When asked the secret of his longevity he laughs in reply.
‘There is no secret. For me it came down to the fact that I never lost my love for rugby and I kept on enjoying playing as the seasons went by. When you are enjoying what you do, you don’t mind putting in the hard work to stay on top of your game. You aren’t tempted to take short cuts.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine