Crash, bang! Ox to extend rich Sharks tradition
Cape Town - Until it finally becomes official, call it one of rugby’s worst-kept secrets.
Thought to be imminent, the Sharks - currently keeping their media department broadly busy in this area - will unveil Ox Nche as a significant forward signing for Super Rugby 2020 onward.
You might well say the cat, if we’re going to stick with animal themes, is out of the bag anyway, what with new head coach at Kings Park, Sean Everitt, already on record as being “happy” that Nche, a pivotal figure in the Cheetahs’ march to well-merited Currie Cup 2019 glory, will soon be part of their mix.
Sadly in some ways, it will provide further confirmation that the less moneyed, more platteland-type unions simply cannot hold onto premier assets indefinitely; Bloemfontein has always been a popular recruitment landscape for the Sharks in the modern era, even if to the chagrin of supporters of the orange-and-white cause.
Undoubtedly, though, Nche seems a snug fit into the Sharks’ plans … and not least because the low-slung loose-head will extend a rich Super Rugby history of the franchise boasting No 1-jerseyed props with a natural zeal for wrecking-ball activity in open play.
It began with Ollie le Roux, the Grey College-educated beefy unit - almost inevitably to later become the major marketing face of a massive SA steakhouse chain for some time - who signed terms in Durban in 1995 and was ready to go for the launch of Super Rugby “proper” in 1996.
Le Roux, who could also lay claim to pioneer status as an impact-specialist substitute for the Springboks, was one of the most recognisable figures in the Gary Teichmann-led Sharks team who led the South African charge in the then-booming competition with some majesty (though sans the silverware) for the first handful of years.
They drew large, vibrant home crowds, too - with Le Roux’s door-splitting charges with ball in hand no small lure.
He stayed on the Sharks’ payroll all the way to 2003, and locals didn’t have to wait too much longer to witness the arrival of a new rattling freight train in a No 1 shirt: Tendai Mtawarira.
The “Beast” chant soon to take root with equal stealth, Mtawarira debuted for them in the 2007 season, and featured in the final as reserve to then more seasoned Deon Carstens; it remains the occasion in which the Sharks have come agonisingly closest to hoisting the trophy, done out of it by Bryan Habana’s famous 83rd-minute infield dart to steal the crown for the Bulls in a mass-disbelieving Durban.
Nevertheless, the popular, off-field gentle giant has been an integral part of the Sharks’ furniture ever since, and it hasn’t even been confirmed yet that the unusually one-franchise-loyal figure will be quitting their ranks, currently aged 34, after a likely final World Cup campaign for the Boks in Japan.
He has shown renewed international appetite under the Rassie Erasmus regime, and almost indisputably has another Super Rugby season - at least - in him if he desires it.
But whether the Beast remains on board or not for the Sharks in 2020 - he’d be a sublime squad mentor to the anticipated new recruit - Nche just seems the quite ideal person to further their reputation for fielding crowd-wowing loose-head props.
At 24, the former SA Schools and U20 star is still short of reaching maximum personal potential, particularly in a position where that not uncommonly occurs as late as the 30-mark or thereabouts, especially from a scrummaging point of view.
That is the one area of his game, arguably, that most thwarts him at present from more strongly challenging the likes of Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff for regular Bok honours, although the former being in his international twilight offers hope that things could change relatively soon for Nche.
His lone Test cap thus far came in that difficult, disjointed and highly experimental exercise against Wales in Washington DC last year, in a front row alongside the problem-plagued Chiliboy Ralepelle and Wilco Louw.
An undistinguished date for him then, he has nevertheless bounced back extremely zestfully at domestic level for the Cheetahs more recently, culminating in a rip-roaring, champagne-outcome 2019 Currie Cup campaign.
The 1.73m “brick” has demonstrated an unyieldingly consistent work-rate, hugely dynamic whether taking the ball into shuddering contact or even as a more cerebral, elusive runner sometimes, while his tackles spark air-evacuating grunts from his victims and winces from the stands.
It is a shame in certain respects that Nche vacates the more set-piece-conscious climes of the PRO14 for a return to slightly more “run-around” Super Rugby, after two seasons of exposure to the northern hemisphere-based tournament, though it already appears to have done him plenty of good.
But be in very little doubt at all that the overall Retshegofaditswe Nche package will become a welcome new cult figure in the Shark Tank before you know it.
Now … where’s that announcement?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing