Ox Nché’s social media offerings have proved an unexpected source of information and delight. Over the past month or so, the Springbok prop has engaged with fans from all corners of the rugby world during the immensely popular #AskOx sessions.
Users can’t get enough of Nché, whether he is posting about his affinity for cake, his scrum battle with Tadhg Furlong during the British and Irish Lions series in South Africa, or his belief he may well be a fly-half trapped inside a prop’s body.
While there’s plenty of light-hearted banter on Retshegofaditswe Nché’s Twitter timeline, certain interactions between the player and fans reveal a great deal about his personality and long rugby journey.
An image supplied by one user shows Nché kneeling alongside two young Cheetahs fans after a Pro14 match in Belfast five years ago. Clearly Nché had a strong sense of community long before he had a Twitter account. He hasn’t joined social media in recent months for the likes, but for the meaningful connections.
Information such as how he was christened ‘Ox’ after performing a tap-and-go manoeuvre in primary school is shared freely. While he doesn’t enjoy scrummaging against team-mates Frans Malherbe or Trevor Nyakane at training, he ranks the versatile Wallabies tight-head Taniela Tupou as the best prop on the planet.
Nché’s posts and replies convey his enthusiasm for the game. Those who have watched the gifted player represent the Cheetahs, Sharks and Boks over the past six years will vouch for the fact he approaches every scrum, breakdown and outside gap with the same positive energy.
What’s more, he has the skill set to match the ambition, and the number on his back doesn’t do that skill set justice.
Few have made the point Nché stands at 1.73m, and he is only a couple of centimetres taller than Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe. In 2021, this hardly seems to matter. There was a time, however, when coaches at the highest level of South African rugby were preoccupied with a player’s size rather than his ability.
The size of Nché’s heart, of course, has never been in question. Without a strong sense of belief in himself, he may never have realised his ambition to represent South Africa.
Nché attended HTS Louis Botha in Bloemfontein and starred for Free State at the Under-16 and U18 national tournaments. Later, he completed a degree in geography and statistics at the University of Free State, and had the opportunity to play for the Shimlas in the Varsity Cup. It was on the back of those performances, and later for the South Africa U20 team, he was given a professional contract.
It took a while for Ox to receive the opportunity, but he’s making it count now. I also believe his best is yet to come.
Nché made his Super Rugby debut for the Cheetahs in 2016. Even at that stage of his senior career, he stood out as a front-row forward who could link with the backs in attack as well as compete at the breakdown in defence. He made his Currie Cup debut later that year, and was named player of the tournament after he helped Free State win the domestic title for the first time in nine years.
Opportunity knocked during the early stages of 2017 when he was drafted into the South Africa A squad and selected to face the French Barbarians in a two-game series. He made an immediate impression – showing his speed and agility to finish a fantastic try in the first match – but was made to wait another year for his first cap.
In June 2018, incoming Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus split his squad in order to deal with the unique demands of facing Wales in Washington DC in the season opener and then England in Johannesburg seven days later. Ultimately, Erasmus opted to send an experimental side to the United States while the first-choice team prepared for England.
Nché was picked to start on debut for the ‘B’ side against Wales. The Boks suffered a narrow loss and, like several others in that particular line-up, the young loose-head didn’t receive another opportunity during Erasmus’s tenure.
By late 2017, the Cheetahs had been relegated from Super Rugby along with the Southern Kings and Western Force. Three years later, they were axed from the Pro14 roster.
By 2020, however, Nché had completed a life-changing move to the Sharks. The rambunctious prop thrived in the new environment, and was one of the stars of the truncated campaign. The Sharks led the overall Super Rugby log when the season was suspended due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Later that season, Nché featured in the Springbok trial game staged at Newlands. He may have added more caps to his tally if the Boks had played Test rugby in 2020.
As it happened, he was forced to wait nine more months – until South Africa’s comeback game against Georgia in July 2021 – for his next opportunity in the green and gold jersey.
When Bok coach Jacques Nienaber named the squad for the Lions Tests, many assumed Steven Kitshoff would start and Nché would be utilised from the bench. Eyebrows were raised after Nienaber backed Nché to pack down against Furlong, the best scrummaging tight-head in world rugby.
The move paid off – at least until Nché was replaced in the second half of the first Test due to a neck injury. The pocket battleship attacked the formidable Furlong, and the Lions scrum crumbled.
Beast Mtawarira was among the front-row experts who lauded the performance. The 117-Test veteran, who retired after producing a game-shaping scrummaging display in the 2019 World Cup final, hailed Nché as the next big thing.
“Massive, massive impact against Furlong in that first game against the Lions,” Mtawarira told The XV. “I actually felt he deserved more reward for his dominance at the scrum, a couple more penalties.
“Ox has really impressed me since getting his chance at the Boks. It took a while for him to receive the opportunity, but he’s making it count now. I also believe his best is yet to come.”
South Africa are spoiled for choice in the loose-head department. Nché and Kitshoff may be the only ‘specialists’ in the squad currently touring the United Kingdom, but Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit – South Africa’s swing props – boast plenty of experience on that side of the scrum. In fact, Nyakane has played six of his 10 Tests at loose-head this season.
Some people might think it’s about Ox starting ahead of Steven or vice versa. It’s more about the two of them working as a combination.
The athleticism of players such as Nché and Kitshoff continue to give them an edge. Nienaber has stated on more than one occasion Nché’s speed in open play – whether he is racing to the next breakdown or joining a well-choreographed kick-chase – makes him an asset to the Boks.
The player himself – who at 26 is still relatively young for a Test prop – believes his education, particularly at the scrum, is ongoing. A tour of Wales, Scotland and England this November will provide a stern examination of his abilities and reveal how much he’s learned.
“The future is very bright for Ox, and for South Africa when you consider they have Steven as well at their disposal,” noted Mtawarira.
“Some people might think it’s about Ox starting ahead of Steven or vice versa. It’s more about the two of them working as a combination, though, as you need two loose-heads in a match 23 to do the job over a period of 80 minutes.
“I remember what [former Springbok forwards coach] Matt Proudfoot said to Steven and I ahead of the 2019 World Cup. He told us we had to keep pushing each other to become the best loose-head pairing in the world – and I think we achieved that at the tournament in Japan.
“Going forward, Ox and Steven have the potential to be that combination for the Boks. I’m excited about what they might achieve.”