Bok opportunity for Ox is due reward

It’s been more than three years between Ox Nche’s first and second Test caps. His return to the Springbok fold is long awaited but fully deserved, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

When the Springbok team was named to face Georgia on Friday, I had to remind myself – as I’m sure many others did – that Nche was not one of the uncapped players set for a Test debut this weekend.

For all intents and purposes, though, this is a fresh start for the 25-year-old at international level.

Back in 2018, Nche started in the one-off Test against Wales – in Washington of all places – as the Springboks began their journey under Rassie Erasmus with a rather bizarre fixture.

It came a week before the real business of the three-Test home series against England, and several fringe players had to understandably make the trip to the USA.

At that stage, Nche was still making a name for himself at the Cheetahs, but had already caught the eye of the Erasmus-Nienaber brains trust as a potential successor to one of his role models, Beast Mtawarira.

Nche would go on to amass nearly 100 caps for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup, PRO14 and a handful of Super Rugby games, but after banking some invaluable set-piece experience from the Cheetahs’ foray into northern-hemisphere competition, he followed the well-travelled road from Bloemfontein to Durban.

The burly prop joined the Sharks in 2020 with the desire to rub shoulders with a number of 2019 World Cup winners and to evolve other aspects of his game such as work rate, ball skills and his influence in both tight and loose play.

He was desperate to add to his solitary Bok cap, and to ensure he became a regular in the national squad in the next World Cup cycle.

“You watch that World Cup final in Japan last year and you think: ‘I want to be there. What can I do differently so that I can be there? I never want to watch a World Cup from home again’,” he told SA Rugby magazine last year.

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The industrious front rower is now closer than ever to stringing a sequence of international appearances together as the Springboks approach 14 Tests in the space of five months.

Mtawarira has retired, and while Steven Kitshoff is now the incumbent at loosehead prop, there is an opening for someone to make the step up to be next in line.

Erasmus and Nienaber are nothing if not proactive in terms of their long-term and big-picture thinking, and even before the Covid-19 pandemic sent the Springboks into a 20-month hiatus, they had their eye on Nche as a player of particular national interest.

The seemingly never-ending wait for a return to international action is finally about to come to an end for the Springboks, but it will also represent a special and hard-earned “comeback” of sorts for Nche.

“Ever since that Test, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll do whatever it takes to get back to that level,” he told the media during a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

“The end goal was to get here and get the chance. As much as I’m trying to be a better player, I also have to reap the rewards and get the chance to represent my country. It is the biggest achievement.

“The coaches have standards that the Springboks thrive upon. I’m still getting there and I’ll do anything and everything to ensure I get to those standards and maintain them.”

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Craig Lewis