Powerful Lions prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye is more than just his 153kg frame

FILE - Asenathi Ntlabakanye in action for the Lions during a United Rugby Championship match. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

FILE - Asenathi Ntlabakanye in action for the Lions during a United Rugby Championship match. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

Published Nov 17, 2023


Asenathi Ntlabakanye is recorded as weighing in at 153kg, but his reach is much more impressive ...

So impressive, in fact, that when you least expect it, bam! – there he is, making a thumping tackle on some unsuspecting backline player, or an opponent who had the temerity to think he could dance his way around the St Stithians alumnus.

The 24-year-old will get his first start of the United Rugby Championship season when the Lions arrive at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night to face Irish giants Ulster. Kick-off is at 9.35pm, SA time.

Ntlabakanye is close to becoming something of a cult hero for Lions supporters.

The big, burly tighthead prop is an impressive scrummager and powerful carrier, but it is his work off the ball that has murmurs of his legend being whispered in the stands at Ellis Park.

Ntlabakanye has an eye for the big tackle, you see, and has been crunching into opposition with frightful glee.

His mobility around the park has been inspiring, working hard to get himself in position to form up in the defensive line.

In the 120 minutes he has played so far this season, Ntlabakanye has made 23 carries, scored a try and made 13 tackles.

His elevation to the starting XV is due to the fractured wrist of Springbok Ruan Dreyer, but it will give Ntlabakanye the opportunity to put in a 50-minute or so shift to showcase his continued development.

Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen has also opted to continue with the Morné van den Berg-Sanele Nohamba axis at nine and 10.

The combination worked a treat last weekend when the Lions finally secured their first victory of the new campaign against the Scarlets.

Nohamba’s decision last year to transfer to the Joburgers is proving to be an inspired one, and the 24-year-old is proving to be a feisty playmaker with the improved game time he has received.

In the absence of Jordan Hendrikse’s form, Nohamba filled in nicely at No 10, especially with his attacking play, while keeping the scoreboard ticking over with his unerring boot.

Those characteristics will be important against Ulster as the Lions must take every opportunity they get to build scoreboard pressure against a team that enjoys the one-two punch of set piece and maul.

Cold and wet conditions are expected in Belfast on the night, and that – and a thoughtful kicking game – could suit the Lions who have developed a knack of being niggly opponents who refuse to capitulate.

“We need to make sure our basics are good,” said Lions assistant coach Barend Pieterse earlier this week.

“The guys know the environment that we are going into is harsh. The weather outside is cold, it’s raining, and the stadium will be sold out again, but everyone is ready for what we expect.

“We just have to keep our basics simple. It doesn’t help against a classy team like Ulster if we start doing funny things like play(ing) from own tryline.”

It will be the Lions’ final match of their European tour. Thereafter, they will return to South Africa to face Zebre and the Dragons before the EPCR Challenge Cup starts in mid-December.

Lions Team

15 Quan Horn, 14 Richard Kriel, 13 Henco van Wyk, 12 Marius Louw (captain), 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Sanele Nohamba, 9 Morné van den Berg, 8 Francke Horn, 7 Emmanuel Tshituka, 6 Hanru Sirgel, 5 Willem Alberts, 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 2 PJ Botha, 1 Corné Fourie.

Bench: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 JP Smith, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Ruan Delport, 20 Ruan Venter, 21 JC Pretorius, 22 Jordan Hendrikse, 23 Rabz Maxwane.