How Ntlabakanye keeps the Lions on song

Asenathi Ntlabakanye of the Lions. | BackpagePix

Asenathi Ntlabakanye of the Lions. | BackpagePix

Published Feb 15, 2024


When Asenathi Ntlabakanye isn’t belting out major plays on the field, then he is belting out major notes in an effort to motivate his teammates, with what has only been described as a “beautiful voice”.

Whether he is a tenor or a bass remains a mystery, but one could expect he is at least comfortable as a baritone when he initiates the gwijo in the Lions squad to get the gees (spirit) going.

The burly prop is developing a cult following with some excellent performances in the United Rugby Championship, built not on his formidable frame, but rather his relentless determination.

It is easy to understand why Lions scrum coach Julian Redelinghuys could so easily sing Ntlabakanye’s praises on a balmy afternoon at Johannesburg Stadium yesterday.

Said the former Springbok tighthead: “If you talk about him and his upbringing, there are reasons why he is so tough – there are reasons he has become a machine of a (player).

“He is not a boy any more. He has been through tough seasons in life. He works hard, and he is not about himself.

“He has all the makings of a successful career, and my wish is for him, and many more of these young gentlemen, to reach their potential. The green and gold is within his potential.”

“I am really proud of Assa,” Redelinghuys had said earlier. “If you look at his training stats, he has missed the least amount of minutes ... He is just a guy that is on the field and does his work day in, day out. He drives the standard.

“He is not the oldest guy in the pack, but he has a certain authority. He is the guy that will sing to the team if there is an opportunity for that. He is a real team player ...

“Assa is a good example of a guy working his ar*e off, serving the team well, getting rewards for it and hitting guys really hard … He has got a beautiful voice as well,” Redelinghuys revealed with a chuckle.

Without a doubt, Ntlabakanye has become an important component of this Lions team, and Redelinghuys’ unflappable belief in him is shared by many fans and pundits who have attached the No 3’s name to the Springbok set-up.

With Ntlabakanye in the vanguard up front, the Lions have imposed themselves against much more fancied packs to stand as the fourth-best unit overall in the URC.

Indeed, they are statistically rated as the most successful first eight at scrum time, with 97% of their set pieces won.

Only the Bulls, who they face on Saturday at Ellis Park (3pm kick-off), Cardiff and Leinster are rated better in that department overall.

“The guys drive really high standards, and the best thing for a coach is that the players are driving that,” Redelighuys explained of the Lions’ forwards.

“Even though there have been good performances, there are still areas where even if we go 1% more, that is still improvement. And that is what they keep chasing.

“The pack builds each other. Even the guys that are not playing are pushing the guys that are playing really hard. It is a good environment.”

This weekend’s return match against the Bulls is generating an aura of a grudge match.

The recent 30-28 loss to the Bulls at the end of last month – with the result decided by a wayward penalty attempt – has seemingly left a bitter taste in the Lions’ mouths, and a desperate hunger to record victory in the return match.

The Joburgers can push for that goal with a matchday 23 at full strength... mostly.

There is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the availability of flank Emmanuel Tshituka for the clash after the 23-year-old pulled up during training yesterday, the severity of the injury unknown at the time.

Asenathi Ntlabakanye of the Lions. | BackpagePix