Ox Nche has presented himself as more than just a Free State front-row heavyweight, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There is a video on YouTube that has been racking up thousands of views. Titled ‘Runaway Ox scores legendary try’, it shows an unforgettable five-pointer scored by young Cheetahs prop Ox Nche during a Currie Cup clash against the Blue Bulls in August.
Despite the fact the burly front-row forward weighs in at over 100kg, he can be seen charging up the wing before receiving an inside ball from centre William Small-Smith on the halfway line.
Without a second thought, Nche pins his ears back and dashes 50m to cross the tryline unopposed, with Bulls flyhalf Tian Schoeman having no hope of stopping the big man as he comes across in cover defence.
It’s a video that aptly illustrates the all-round attributes of a talented 21-year-old who has taken the Currie Cup by storm this season, and who could well become one of rugby’s cult figures in a vein similar to that of Springbok loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira.
Interestingly, though, Nche tells SA Rugby magazine that while Mtawarira is certainly one of the players he has always looked up to, it’s the late, legendary All Blacks wing Jonah Lomu who he regards as his all-time hero.
‘I’ve always admired Jonah for the way he used all his attributes to his advantage. He had speed and power, while he was strong on attack and defence. He was an all-rounder and for me, as a prop, I don’t just want to scrum, I want to offer something special with other aspects of my game.’
This season, Nche has certainly caught the eye through his powerful ball-carrying ability. After seven rounds of 2016 Currie Cup action, Nche had made 27 carries, executed three clean breaks and completed 283 running metres, while scoring two tries and assisting in a couple more. Adding to his all-round stats, Nche completed 58 tackles and executed three turnovers.
Nche says he is determined to evolve into a front rower who not only offers a threat in the scrum, but all across the park.
‘I’m still far from where I want to be, but the biggest challenge is managing myself throughout the game and ensuring my work rate and scrumming are up to standard for the full 80 minutes. That’s something I’m working on, but I’m still learning. I want to keep performing consistently at scrum time, but to also contribute as a ball-carrier and on defence.’
It’s this mature and measured approach that has undoubtedly played a significant role in Nche’s meteoric rise in 2016. Last year, he featured prominently for the victorious Shimlas side in the Varsity Cup before earning a deserved call-up to the Junior Springbok squad, starting in all five of their matches at the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Nche was then rushed into the Cheetahs’ Super Rugby squad after Danie Mienie suffered a serious injury at the beginning of the year, making his senior debut in the season-opener against the Jaguares.
Nche admits his Super Rugby debut came around ‘much sooner than expected’.
‘My initial aim was just to get some game time in Super Rugby next year, so I got the shock of my life when I got the call-up this year. It was a really big step up, but playing against overseas teams like the Jaguares and Waratahs was a real learning experience.’
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith, who guided Shimlas to Varsity Cup success in 2015, says it was during that tournament that he saw Nche had all the necessary qualities, and he had no hesitation in backing the mobile prop to make the transition to senior rugby.
‘I started working with Ox during that Varsity Cup season, but before then I’d heard he was a really talented player who had come through the school system in Bloemfontein. His impressive attitude and work ethic were easy to spot from the outset.
‘When Ox made the step up to Super Rugby, I think he showed not only his natural ability, but also his mental strength to punch above his weight at such a young age, which was very encouraging.’
Having had an extended run as one of the Cheetahs’ first-choice props in this year’s Currie Cup, Nche’s next goal is to make a impression consistently on the Super Rugby stage.
Smith said he had no doubt that Nche had all the attributes to make a name for himself at that level.
‘His scrummaging is something he will continue to work hard on, but I know he’s a natural athlete. He’s a great ball-carrier and has excellent line speed on defence. He’s also very strong in the contact and has good ball skills. So, it will be important to ensure he performs consistently at scrum time, which is his primary role.
‘It’s important for him to have another good pre-season and then to put himself in a place to establish himself at Super Rugby level. I think he’s developed well enough to show he can be a special performer at that level.’
Notably, Smith believes Nche also possesses the potential to make the transition to tighthead prop.
‘Ox is relatively short in stature, but he has ensured it’s something that can work to his advantage. His core strengths and ability to apply his weight are very good. At this stage, he is a natural loosehead and has been performing well there, but I think he could also make a go of playing at tighthead.
‘Apart from his physical strength, he’s also mentally very strong. He has a great attitude, on and off the field, and he works really hard and is prepared to learn,’ Smith added.
Undoubtedly, ‘Ox’ appears to be a name that could well become increasingly familiar in South African rugby circles over the next few years.
NCHE ON …
HIS GIVEN NAME RETSHEGOFADITSWE, AND HOW HE BECAME KNOWN AS 'OX'
'I started going by the name ''Ox'' in primary school because we used a rugby move called Ox, in which I would take the ball up. Ever since then, people have called me that. However, my given name is 16 letters and it means ''we are blessed''.'
FEATURING IN THE 2011 GRANT KHOMO WEEK AND THE U18 CRAVEN WEEKS IN 2012 AND 2013
'When I played in the Grant Khomo week, it opened my eyes to the fact this could be a career for me. That was a great experience, and then Craven Week is where you see the sort of players you need to compare yourself with'
HIS VARSITY CUP EXPERIENCE WITH SHIMLAS
'The Varsity Cup was amazing, it was such entertaining rugby, and it was one of the highlights of my career. It was great to get such exposure in that tournament and to play against players who were older and more experienced than me. It was a big learning curve.'
ON BECOMING A JUNIOR SPRINGBOK
'It served as a real confidence boost to get called up to the Junior Bok side and it was great to be part of the squad that toured Argentina before the U20 World Championships. In that tournament, I just looked to focus on the basics and contribute where I could to the team. It was another important learning experience.'
HIS STUDIES AT UNIVERSITY OF FREE STATE
'I’m studying a BSc in geography and statistics. They are two subjects I’m passionate about and it’s good to be able to take my mind off rugby at times.'
– This article first appeared in the November edition of SA Rugby magazine.