Ox Nche: 'The best feeling is squeezing a tighthead so hard he passes out' (2024)

Ox Nche’s big, kind eyes take on a smouldering intensity. He shifts forward in his chair a little. He carries the air of a predator stalking its quarry.

We are talking about scrums. Or more specifically, a scrum. Paris, under the glare of the floodlights and the eyeballs of the entire rugby universe. South Africa stumbling beneath a flurry of English blows and none of Rassie Erasmus’ startling innovations turning the tide. The Springbok World Cup defence is in grave jeopardy.

Up in the stand, the brains trust huddles around its general, who is vociferously laying out his plan and giving instruction. The Bomb Squad is deployed. Nche rumbles off the bench and in short order, atomises England’s scrum again and again. The creaking, inexorable pressure too much for the white chariot. Ben O’Keeffe’s arm shoots out; penalties are won and in time, the Webb Ellis Cup saved.

Ox Nche: 'The best feeling is squeezing a tighthead so hard he passes out' (1)

Nche takes us into the arena. “It’s all about breaking them. We say, in Afrikaans, the dam wall is going to break. Normally you won’t get your reward from the first, second or third scrum, but it might come when the bench guys are on and you have worn them out.

“If Steven Kitshoff hadn’t done his job, Dan Cole wouldn’t have been tired, they wouldn’t have had to put in Kyle Sinckler. It’s death by a thousand cuts. Let’s take them as low as we can, put lead in their legs.

“We go hard through the middle, on the hooker, and scrum as straight as we can. We knew they would try and take away our hit or wheel the scrum but if we stay honest and give the referee good pictures it should show our dominance. We’d done our individual analysis. Kyle, after the hit, has good shape and gets low and if you don’t match him there you are in trouble. Vince Koch had analysed Ellis Genge who is a pretty strong guy. We brought all that together and made it work.”

In the scrum I’m saying, ‘he’s gonna pop, he’s gonna pop!’ There is nothing more satisfying than doing that to a tighthead.

This period of raw demolition was Nche’s crowning glory. In the outstanding Chasing the Sun 2 documentary chronicling the Boks triumph, Erasmus likens his squat prop to a bar fridge. “I don’t even know if the guy can bend,” he says, with an incredulous shake of the head. Trevor Nyakane and Frans Malherbe describe how their teammate, stocky and barrel-shaped, burrows into midriffs and crushes like a constrictor snake.

Some tightheads lose consciousness under Nche’s suffocating torture. Others rise gasping for breath and are hoisted clean out of the scrum like a 130KG jack in the box. The last image the poor oke sees is a pair of Ox eyes boring into his soul.

“Hit him as hard as you can,” Nche says. “Get under his chest. Squeeze his ribs. The best feeling for the loosehead – and it has happened a few times at training – is when you squeeze a tighthead so hard they pass out for a few seconds. He shouldn’t be able to get air. When he gets out, he should take a few moments and think, we are in for a long day.

“If you have him in a bad position and he decides to bail by popping up out of scrum, you know you’re in his head. In the scrum I’m saying, ‘he’s gonna pop, he’s gonna pop!’ There is nothing more satisfying than doing that to a tighthead. You know you have given him something to think about. Even if he’s having a great game, now he’s going to be thinking about that scrum. I’ll always look in his eyes afterwards to see, that’s where the doubt is.”

The most striking element of Chasing the Sun 2 isn’t actually the Boks’ willingness to share their secret tactical sauce; it’s the rich tapestry of backgrounds and customs and ethnicities intertwined so beautifully in a single awesome unit. How easily the players slip from one language to the next. How wildly different each of their stories are. Township boys raised with nothing. Farmer’s sons from the Afrikaans heartlands. Men from tough city suburbs overlooked and written off. Prodigies of gilded rugby schools long earmarked for greatness. And how they have united as one vibrant, seemingly unbreakable, fraternity.

Ox Nche: 'The best feeling is squeezing a tighthead so hard he passes out' (2)

“We embrace and respect each other’s cultures,” Nche goes on. “The songs we sing – even though some guys like, let’s say Pieter-Steph du Toit who is Afrikaans, doesn’t understand, he would come and ask what we are singing and what the words are, so he could understand why we are singing. For someone like Kwagga Smith who is quiet, you get to understand his background and why he is like this. It’s not just through playing, you also get to experience and know their friends and families, and that’s what comes across the most is that we actually get to have a genuine feeling for each other’s backgrounds and personalities.”

Nche’s journey began in Thaba’ Nchu, the Free State town settled by his ancestors of the Barolong tribe nearly 200 years ago. As their eldest child and first boy, his parents named him Retshegofaditswe, meaning ‘we are blessed’ in their Tswana tongue. The ‘Ox’ moniker came much later and as a consequence of his bullocking dynamism as a Cheetahs prospect.

Nche rode back to Thaba’ Nchu last November on a bus with his own grinning face emblazoned on the side. He carried not just the Webb Ellis Cup, but a beacon of hope for the people of his home town. The Tlotlo ya Morafe wa Barolong-Boo-Seleka, the honour of the nation, was bestowed upon him.

“I was once one of those kids, running after buses, playing with my friends, getting up to no good,” Nche says. “We were out in the fields one day herding someone else’s cows and we saw these horses sitting there. They were tame, so we went to them and just took them for a ride. We spent about four hours of their grazing time riding them.

“The next day we came back and the owners of the horses arrived, questioned us, realised we were lying and chased us. Luckily we didn’t get caught. That’s how I became so fast!

“There’s no rugby school in Thaba’ Nchu. I came back and showed all the children your dreams are valid, you can achieve whatever you want. It was special to see the joy and happiness in everyone’s eyes.”

This is a recurring story across South Africa. No player sidles into Test rugby without sweat and sacrifice. Many, all over the world, play for a greater purpose. Why, then, does the Springbok jersey inspire deeper resolve and carry such vast authenticity? How can they possibly go to the well over and over and keep pulling off the superhuman? The loss to Ireland in the pool stage would have derailed other teams. There was the quarter-final epic when they were pummelled by Antoine Dupont’s swashbucklers with French destiny in their hearts and the seething Stade at their backs. The England slugfest in the semis which went the distance. Then the All Blacks, their greatest foes and serial champions, to sink in the final. When the apocalypse comes, only dust, single-celled organisms and twenty-three blokes in green and gold will be left.

I had this triple chocolate cake in Swansea when we played the Scarlets, amazing, a lot of flavour, one of the softest cakes I’ve ever had.

Maybe their diverse web allows the Boks to find strength when others fray. Maybe it’s because, for all the dysfunctional elements of South African life, the load shedding and the carjacking, the poverty and the inequality, the corruption and the crime, this team is a light its people can cling to.

“It was for South Africa,” Nche says, succinctly. “If the Springboks are doing well, it is one of the few things which actually functions well. We understand when we play, we play for something bigger than ourselves.

“I got to OR Tambo Airport in Joburg and realised, this is way bigger than I expected. The passion you see in people’s eyes is incredible. I remember I went to have supper with friends, walked past the bathroom and said hello to these people, and a lady started tearing up because she couldn’t believe I was there. She started telling me how much it meant for her and her family when we won. You walk around South Africa and people don’t even want a photo, nothing, they just want to thank you for what you did. I don’t know how much I actually did, but I helped people, and that’s something I changed in South Africa.”

Nche has seen his profile rocket back home. Supermarket Woolworths have pledged to supply him with a year’s worth of cake, a nod to the prop’s famous sweet tooth. He has a popular clothing brand with the tagline ‘salads don’t win scrums’ and averages a couple of sugary slices a week. The Sharks’ Challenge Cup semi-final against Clermont will be staged in London this Saturday, allowing Nche to sample new treats on tour.

“Chocolate caramel is my standard favourite. I had this triple chocolate cake in Swansea when we played the Scarlets, amazing, a lot of flavour, one of the softest cakes I’ve ever had. We are off on Wednesday, so I’ll definitely have a slice of cake on Tuesday. I’ll have one after our session on Thursday. I’ll see about dessert after the game on Saturday.

“The dieticians don’t mind it. They know my skinfolds will be fine, my fat percentage will be low, and I’m not gaining any weight.”

The Sharks have been a pale reflection of the talent in their ranks; foundering near the bottom of the URC, losing ten of their first eleven matches, succumbing even to Zebre Parma, who had not won a game in over 18 months. South African icon John Smit recently likened his old team to a Ferrari without a gearbox. Rand has been ploughed into a franchise now wielding more world champions than a hall of fame convention but only now, with all their Boks in tow, are they beginning to look anything close to the sum of their parts.

Ox Nche: 'The best feeling is squeezing a tighthead so hard he passes out' (3)

The Challenge Cup has applied the defibrillators to a flatlining season. It is a rare shot at tangible success for a club who, bizarrely, never won the Super Rugby title before flitting across the equator.

“It’s a mindset thing,” Nche says. “We created chances but instead of staying focused, having a calm head and executing, we tended to be too erratic or inaccurate and guys would give up, I guess. It’s not that we’ve played horribly. You have a bad start and confidence goes down.

“Our fans don’t deserve any of that. They have been supporting us throughout and it’s our duty to give them something.

“Now we are building nicely. Winning this competition would be massive for us – it would be one of the biggest trophies some of the players have ever won – and massive for the union as well. We owe it to ourselves, our fans and the Sharks.”

South African sides are not allowed to host EPCR semi-finals in the Rainbow Nation this year, but the Sharks will harness a huge expat diaspora to make the Stoop feel like home. Clermont are a big team with a meaty pack. They will throw the kitchen sink at the Durbanite scrum, for sure. The Sharks will lob an immovable, unbendable bar fridge right back at them.

Ox Nche: 'The best feeling is squeezing a tighthead so hard he passes out' (2024)

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