Trevor Nyakane’s big voice booms down the line. He speaks rapidly and passionately about his new adventure at Racing 92, about his rare ability to alternate between loosehead and tighthead prop, and about his biggest challenge yet: French referee interpretations at the scrum.
Another voice in the background threatens to bring the Springbok prop’s set-piece soliloquy to a halt. It turns out that Nyakane has taken this call in the Racing 92 team room. His team-mates chant and shout, and one voice with a thick Spanish accent drowns Nyakane out.
The big man laughs before addressing the culprit directly.
“Juan! Not now, man.” He then attempts to explain, in-between chuckles, that Argentina international Juan Imhoff is standing next to him with an interesting item in hand.
“Juan wants to play the guitar while I’m trying to do this interview,” Nyakane reveals. “I’m not sure how far we’ll get, but let’s give it a shot.”
Fans of Racing 92 might well imagine the scene. Few will be surprised. The club attracts some of the most gifted and colourful personalities. Nyakane himself ticks both boxes.
The players certainly have good reason to be upbeat. In late January, Racing 92 travelled to Toulouse and scored a 20-15 upset over the Champions Cup and Top 14 title-holders. Nyakane couldn’t have wished for a better start to his tenure in France, where away wins are like hen’s teeth.
“At the time I didn’t realise the magnitude of the achievement,” says Nyakane. “Then I saw what it meant to the local players and coaches. The way they celebrated in the change room afterwards was something else.
“That match jersey is definitely getting framed. It’s a result I will always cherish, no matter what happens from here.”
Late last year, Nyakane transferred from the Bulls to Racing 92. After spending more than 12 years as a professional player in South Africa, the 32-year-old felt that it was time for a change.
After taking some time to settle with his young family in Paris, and after receiving an opportunity to play in the wake of several Covid-related match postponements, Nyakane is ready to comment about the game in France.
“You pick up some of the lingo, and in a way rugby has a universal language. At the same time, you have to learn a fair amount of French as a forward. The lineout calls, for example, are all in French.
“[Former Sharks lock] Anton Bresler and I went for lessons recently. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before.
The competition is harder. I heard about what to expect before I arrived, but hearing about it and experiencing it first-hand are completely different things
“I’m determined to learn, though. I want to get all I can out of my experience in France. I reckon that I’ve made progress, but my French teacher will probably disagree.”
The 54-Test veteran has already won a World Cup, a Rugby Championship and a series against the British & Irish Lions. Some might argue that he has nothing more to prove, or that his latest move to Racing 92 is a sign that his international days are numbered.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The XV understands that Nyakane remains integral to coach Jacques Nienaber’s plans for the 2022 season, and for the 2023 World Cup.
Nyakane is hoping that a stint in France will take his game – particularly at the scrum – to the next level.
“Again, I cannot stress how different everything is up here, from the way they set up at the engagement to the way the referees blow the laws.
“It’s been a big adjustment. The set piece is almost central to the game in the northern hemisphere. It’s tough on the body. The competition is harder. I heard about what to expect before I arrived, but hearing about it and experiencing it first-hand are completely different things.”
It’s a fascinating admission by one of the best props in world rugby. Former South Africa prop Beast Mtawarira – who won 117 Test caps between 2008 and 2019 – goes one further by suggesting that Nyakane is at the top of the scrummaging pile.
“Trevor took some huge strides forward in 2021. To move from loosehead to tighthead so seamlessly – you have to credit him for the work he’s put into both positions,” Mtawarira tells the XV.
“He’s definitely the most versatile prop in the world. I’d rate him alongside Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong as the best prop in world rugby. As an out-and-out scrummager, I’d rate Trevor as the guy who is setting the standard on that tighthead side.”
The Boks played 15 matches last year – 13 Tests as well as two matches as South Africa ‘A’. Nyakane packed down at loosehead on six occasions and started at tighthead seven times.
I take my hat off to Trevor for performing both roles at such a high standard. He started the first Test against the All Blacks at loosehead, and then the second game the following week at tighthead. That’s unheard of.
Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira
Few players manage to excel in both positions at the highest level. Even fewer are able to alternate between loosehead and tighthead on a near-weekly basis.
Mtawarira explains why.
“They are two completely different positions that require different mindsets and different technical approaches,” he says. “The way you position your body and the way you scrum is very different.
“I take my hat off to Trevor for performing both roles at such a high standard. He started the first Test against the All Blacks at loosehead, and then the second game the following week at tighthead. That’s unheard of. To play both positions at this level, and against a scrummaging unit like that of the All Blacks is nothing short of amazing.
“In my opinion, tighthead is the most difficult position to play. For him to anchor the scrum the way he did… that’s not easy. That’s a lot of work, a lot of preparation, and a lot experience that allows you to excel in a situation like that.”
Nyakane broaches the subject with this trademark energy and passion.
“It’s a long process, and I don’t think people truly appreciate the dynamics of each position,” Nyakane begins.
“I started out as a loosehead prop – that’s where I made my Test debut in 2013. Then I spent three to four years making the switch to tighthead. I was daunted by that switch at first, but I stuck to the task.
“When the loosehead packs down against the opposition tighthead, he always has an escape route. When you’re at tighthead, however, you’re scrumming against the opposition hooker as well as the loosehead. They’re both coming for you at the same time, and there’s nowhere to hide.
“The other big difference between the two positions is the positioning of your feet and your height off the ground. At loosehead. you’re scrumming off your right leg and effectively trying to lift up the opposition tighthead. At tighthead, you’re doing the exact opposite: you’re staying as low as possible and pushing mainly off your left leg.
“Loosehead and tighthead are polar opposites, and to play both is extremely tough. Even the guys who have done it before will tell you that it takes a great deal of work to move between the two and to be successful.”
Forward coaches and players often wax lyrical about the synergy required to dominate at scrum-time. Nyakane is quick to give his teammates credit, and rightly so.
While the Bok attack blew hot and cold in 2021, the scrum was consistently dominant. The players’ strength, technique, as well as their ability to adapt to opposition tactics and referee interpretations all contributed to the team’s set-piece success.
“I’m fortunate that I had such a strong back five pushing behind me,” Nyakane says. “I put the work in before each match, but I also had the non-playing reserves giving me input and analysing the opposition to help me achieve my goals. [Bok forwards coach] Daan Human guided me the whole way.”
I remember standing on the field when the whistle sounded at the end of the third Test against the Lions, realising that I had achieved my goal and that I had contributed to a series victory. It was immensely satisfying.
The scrum was a big focal point ahead of the 2021 Lions series. The Boks 2-1 victory was built on their dominance in that area, and Nyakane was lauded as one of the heroes in the aftermath.
“I got injured in the first game of the 2019 World Cup, and was forced to fly home. It was disappointing to miss most of that campaign, after all the work that I had put in.
“I had some good times with the team after we won the cup, but at the back of my mind, I always knew that the 2021 Lions series would be the next big challenge. I told myself that I would do everything I could to be part of that series.
“I remember standing on the field when the whistle sounded at the end of the third Test against the Lions, realising that I had achieved my goal and that I had contributed to a series victory. It was immensely satisfying.”
Mtawarira highlights the changes made to the Bok culture since Rassie Erasmus and Nienaber returned to South Africa. Prior to 2018, many of the players were reluctant to express themselves on the field and in the change room. Nowadays, Nyakane and his team-mates dance and sing as part of their post-match routine.
“A lot of the players came out of their shells in a big way,” says Mtawarira. “Rassie encouraged individuals to be themselves.
“It may seem like an obvious thing, but individuals tend to express themselves when they have no fear of judgement. And from there, they tend to give absolutely everything they have on the field of play. In many ways, Rassie was setting us up to express ourselves, and to succeed.”
Mtawarira can’t help but laugh when asked to elaborate on Nyakane’s infectious personality and the impact it can have in a team environment.
“He just exudes positive energy. You never see him down, he always has a smile on face. You need someone like that in a team environment, especially when you’re away from home.
“After games, he’s the life of the party. He never needs an invitation to bring out his dance moves. He relishes that role!”
Nyakane points out that the current team culture promotes acceptance, regardless of an individual’s racial or cultural background, or indeed their level of experience. This has been one of the keys to South Africa’s success in recent years.
“When Rassie came in as coach, he encouraged everyone to treat each other as equals. We became more comfortable with each other. We became friends as much as team-mates. And as a result, we started to express ourselves a lot more.
“We acknowledged each other’s differences and embraced each other’s cultures. We developed a deep respect for one another, and that made us a stronger team.
“Rassie and Jacques also encouraged us to go out there and have fun. Sure we had a job to do, and that requires you to focus. But you’re always going to approach a job you enjoy in a different way.
2023 is around the corner, it feels like it’s really close now. I’m desperate to be a part of that campaign, and I feel that my ability to play on both sides of the scrum will be an asset.
After all he’s achieved with the Boks, Nyakane hasn’t lost his appetite for Test rugby nor his drive to feature at another global tournament.“It’s always an honour to wear the Springbok jersey, but I think that the next World Cup will be something else.
“I went to the tournament in 2015, and I was proud to be there. 2019 was great in that we won the cup, but I got injured early in that campaign and didn’t get to play much.
“2023 is around the corner, it feels like it’s really close now. I’m desperate to be a part of that campaign, and I feel that my ability to play on both sides of the scrum will be an asset.
“I’m sure I will have learned a few new things by the time that tournament arrives. Spending some time in France and in northern-hemisphere conditions is only going to help me to develop as a front-row forward.
“I’ve just got to keep working if I want to play in a third World Cup. That would be an amazing achievement for me. I may not be getting any younger, but I’m hungrier than ever.”