Springboks / 31 August 2019, 4:00pm / Jacques van der Westhuyzen
The first question respected Bulls scrum coach Daan Human asked himself after one of his famous live scrumming sessions with the Bulls team earlier this year was: “Why has this guy not started more Tests for the Springboks?”
Human, who became the Bulls scrum coach at the start of the year, was of course referring to Trevor Nyakane, who at that stage had played just 37 Tests in six years - and started in only two!
It’s been some journey to the top for the now 30-year-old Nyakane, who left South Africa yesterday destined for Japan and the 2019 World Cup with the rest of the Bok 31-man squad.
After years of honing his trade, learning and gaining experience - and getting splinters on the Bok bench - one somehow now gets the feeling Nyakane’s Test career is only really about to get started. One should, perhaps, look at the last five to six years as an apprenticeship.
If he seemed a bit of a back-up kind of guy up to this year, and a player who perhaps hadn’t reached his full potential, or fully grabbed his chances, Nyakane will hope the few strong performances for the Boks earlier this year, combined with further powerful efforts in Japan, will be his springboard to a long and successful Test career. He’s certainly got everything going for him.
Nyakane is going to the World Cup as one of three tightheads - the other two being Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch - but there are signs everywhere he could return as this country’s number one No3. If he didn’t start 2019 as the leading tighthead, he might just have edged ahead of Malherbe and Co heading to Japan this week, and he could have the inside lane now of starting for the Boks against New Zealand in their all-important opening Pool B game on September 21.
Nyakane made national coach Rassie Erasmus and possibly even his Bok scrum boss Matt Proudfoot sit up and take notice when he first dominated the Wallabies at scrum-time in the opening Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park in July and then a week later he came off the bench - replacing Malherbe - to help the Boks force a draw with the All Blacks in Wellington. His performances nudged Erasmus and Co to then pick him to start against Argentina in the defining Test of the Rugby Championship in Salta. And again he delivered.
It’s taken a while, but Nyakane’s time has, seemingly, finally come.
The always smiling, sometimes dancing, happy-go-lucky front-ranker hasn’t had it easy though. After making a big impression while playing for the Cheetahs at loosehead prop he was picked for the Boks for the first time in 2013, by then coach Heyneke Meyer. He made his debut from off the bench against Italy that year but his promising start in Test rugby came to a screeching halt when he was dropped from the squad because of ill-discipline.
Nyakane had missed a video session or two, arrived late in camp and was said to be also not towing the line at the Cheetahs. His conditioning was apparently also not up to scratch. He was called a “constant eater” and he ballooned to 128kg when he should have been closer to 116kg.
In 2014 he described himself as someone who just had to look at a muffin and he’d pick up a few kilos. It didn’t take long and Nyakane changed his diet - he cut out sugar and carbs -and his attitude, and the Bulls snapped him up from the Cheetahs.
The first experiment to make him a tighthead came in 2015 when an injury to Bulls No3 Werner Kruger forced a rethink in the Bulls team make-up. Nyakane was tried and enjoyed mixed success, but he did keep then Bok Marcel van der Merwe out of the starting team. Later, former national team tighthead Cobus Visagie said his future was at loosehead. Everyone had an opinion.
Nyakane, having redeemed himself, was picked by Meyer to go to the World Cup in 2015 but as a loosehead. While his defence, handling and carrying has always been solid, questions remained at Bok level about his ability to command a starting spot.
The biggest obstacle preventing Nyakane from making more progress was his greatest strength - his versatility - which is his ability to play both loosehead to tighthead. He simply wasn’t getting enough game time at the highest level in one position to gain experience and learn.
A turning point came last year when, under then Bulls coach John Mitchell; he was told to sort out his fitness and go back to gym. He wasn’t picked for the Bulls’ first three Super Rugby games because Mitchell felt he was out of shape. By the end of the Super Rugby competition he was in top shape, playing well - and dancing again. Nyakane was in a happy place and set for a strong push in the Springbok team. Injury though knocked him out for most of the Test season, but he’d be back with a vengeance this year. “I always thought he had tremendous potential, not only as a scrummager, but generally as a rugby player,” said Human, who started working with Nyakane and fellow impressive Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka and Co at the start of the year. “Trevor’s always had the defence and the hands ... and he can even steal balls at the ruck.
“What stood out early on was Trevor’s willingness to learn. And, of course, the fact he’s such a good team man. He’s up there with Duane Vermeulen as a team man. I found him to be so well prepared; he’d watched videos before scrumming sessions and was just always ready to train.”
The experiment to become a Test quality tighthead went into overdrive this year. And crucially Nyakane was picked to play tighthead for the Bulls in Super Rugby - in every game, alongside Gqoboka. There was no mucking about, and switching of positions; he wore the No3 on his back and Lizo Gqoboka played in the No1 jersey.
“That’s been crucial to his development and progress this year,” says Human. “He and Lizo were the only props in Super Rugby this year to start every game; that’s phenomenal.”
Human said he wasn’t at all surprised that Nyakane dominated most of his opponents - in Super Rugby and then later when he turned out for the Boks. “The biggest thing about switching from loosehead to tighthead is getting your body position right. The foot plant and placing is different, but Trevor got it quickly. The fact he played at loosehead, and knows the position well, has helped. The only other guys I believe who’ve been successful playing on both sides of the front row are CJ van der Linde and Rob Kempson. “From working with him I can tell you I would have hated going up against him in a scrum,” said Human, who played four Tests for the Boks in 2002. One man who’s experienced Nyakane’s scrumming prowess first hand is Lions loosehead, Dylan Smith - a player who has made life difficult for a number of quality tightheads in Super Rugby and who must be close to getting a national call-up.
“Trevor’s definitely one of the better tightheads I’ve faced,” said Smith. “He’s a very honest scrummager, he doesn’t look to go in and his shape is very good.”
Other former specialist looseheads, like Coenie Oosthuizen, and more recently Thomas du Toit, have been tried and trialled as tightheads, but so far it seems only Nyakane has converted successfully. He’s developed so well that the two “rivals” named here as well as the Stormers’ Wilco Louw - another powerhouse and proper tighthead - have been surpassed in the No3 queue.
Nyakane goes to the World Cup with 40 Test caps to his name, but of those he’s started in only three - and two of those starts were at loosehead. His only start in the No3 jersey so far was against Argentina in Salta recently. It is a quite staggering statistic but don’t be surprised if he’s got the No3 on his back when the Boks open their challenge against old rivals, the All Blacks, on September 21.