Coaches and team-mates of the loosehead tell Rugby World what makes him such a talent. Can he grow in the green shirt over the coming years?

Ox Nché and Springboks could have fierce future together

SUCH WAS the anticipation of the arrival of South Africa’s fabled Bomb Squad in the first Test against the Lions, that some failed to worry about the opening skirmishes. And as the mud loosened over the first half in Cape Town, one player in particular emerged from the muck in possession of a much stronger reputation.

We have since learnt that there was a minor neck complaint that helped contribute to the decision, but when Ox Nché did not return for the second half against the tourists, few could fathom why the loosehead would be removed from the fray.

And while injury may impact the rest of this Lions 2021 series, one 40-minute showing is enough to suggest that the owner of the No 1 green jersey for the coming years should not be a foregone conclusion. Steven Kitshoff – he of the red hair and a notoriety hard-earned from bad-to-the-bone displays off the bench at the last Rugby World Cup – could have a 5ft 8in obstacle to negotiate for some years.

Related: Lions beat Springboks in first Test

It was in the set-piece, up against Tadhg Furlong, that Nché was meant to struggle, scrum after scrum. So how was he able to walk off after 40 with fans from all sides giving those tiny, slow nods that say, ‘not bad’?

“I think he’s an aggressive scrummager,” says former Lions loosehead Alex Corbisiero. “You can definitely see he’s looking to come at the tighthead. He’s not looking to swing around, he’s not doing that. And I think the only way to scrummage against him is to scrum at him and make him chase out. I don’t think the Lions did enough of that in the first half.

“If you look at the way he touched his shoulder with the hooker, it makes a really tight bond between them in there. And there was not a lot of space for Tadhg to really separate or attack. Nché is very forceful with his binds. I like the way that he uses the long bind, but actually puts weight on the opposition – I thought that the Springboks in the first half put quite a lot of weight on the Lions. That was allowing him to win the engage.

“To put any pressure on Tadhg is very hard to do. I think that’s a real credit to Nché – he works hard, he’s aggressive, strong, and pretty quick across the gap.

“What I like about him as well is that the Springboks have a very big pack and usually big packs don’t want a small gap. But I thought the Springboks handled the small gap very well, especially in the first half.”

He is by no means the finished article, and no two Tests are the same (just ask Phil Vickery) but it was in the cracks of that game where Nché grew. And the groundwork for that performance was put in well before we got here.

After the match, the Sharks prop explained that he had done plenty of homework on Furlong. This is to be expected of props, but according to one of his club coaches, no one studies like the Ox.

Ox Nché and Springboks could have fierce future together

Nché after a shift for the Sharks (Getty Images)

“He’s smart, very intelligent,” says Sharks scrum coach Etienne Fynn of Nché, who has made a point of pursuing studies while playing pro rugby. 

“He uses his intelligence quite keenly. He’ll work out the weaknesses of individuals he’s coming up against, and have his own plan well before we chat. It’s ‘These are the weaknesses in that individual that we’ve picked up,’ and he’s seen X, Y and Z as well. So firstly, he’s smart, and he understands his own physical make-up really well – he is not a real tall oke, so he understands how to use it. 

“That’s his greatest strength and that is keenly intelligent and he knows his strengths and limitations and stays within those parameters. So when he wants to turn it on he can.”

Nché has always put in these hours of prep, explains one former Cheetahs team-mate, lock Sintu Manjezi. The Blue Bulls forward tells Rugby World that he will factor extras into every day. He will also, he says, joke with team-mates about lifting more weight – yes, he was one of the strongest players in the Cheetahs squad, but the second-row adds of the prop: “I think his favourite character is The Joker.”

If you look closely at the intersection of academics and rugby ambition, you might be able to see when something special sparks. Many special players have come through the Varisty Cup, like Duhan van der Merwe and Bongi Mbonambi did. Nché too, and it was his coach there, Franco Smith – now Italy’s head of high performance – who first sought to capture that spark in a bottle.

Smith tells us: “I first coached Ox at the Shimlas during the Varsity Cup and was sold on his ability, commitment and the person from day one.

“He has a very distinctive laugh and I really appreciate that he enjoys playing rugby. I hope that he would never lose that because it is very infectious for players around him.

Ox Nché and Springboks could have fierce future together

As a Cheetah on the run (Getty Images)

“He was built to play prop and I think he was moulded to play in that position – he is also the quickest player on the field and it was horrible for backs to play touch against him as he would outsprint most of them! (Note – Manjezi also makes a point of highlighting the prop’s speed over ten metres).

“I contracted him at the Cheetahs after the Varsity Cup and he grew in stature daily. His ability to turn the ball over, the ability to scrum and drive and still have a very good change of speed, in front of the contact, makes him formidable. He trains like he plays and will never shy away from a challenge.

“Confidence comes naturally for him, and his no-nonsense approach is one of his (best) non-coachable aspects. Technically he was very coachable, he is very intelligent and gave you more when he understood the how.”

Wherever you turn, there is praise for the 26-year-old prop. Regardless of how much more he plays in this Lions series, the Boks are very excited about his prospect, particularly in open play beyond a few phases. He will face tougher challenges, and if injury isn’t on the horizon his front-row cohorts will at least keep pushing him.

Ian McGeechan’s famous aphorism about the ‘wounded Springbok’ may be used generally this week, as a note of caution against writing off the South Africans in a Test series. But a niggle forcing off this young front-rower while he begins to forge an international reputation could be something we later realise was just a fleshwound on an exciting new action hero.

We need to see a sequel, soon.

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