Ox up against Wilco in next scene of fabled scrum battle

rugby29 November 2023 08:00
By:Gavin Rich
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Ox Nche © Gallo Images

When you look back at the history of battles between the teams from Pretoria and Durban since Craig Jamieson’s Natal team changed the narrative in 1990, scrums loom large as the central theme.

Natal, the forerunners of the Hollywoodbets Sharks, winning their first Currie Cup title in their centenary year was as much about the scrum reversal the underdogs effected on their more fancied opponents, Northern Transvaal, now the Vodacom Bulls, as it was Tony Watson’s match winning try.

Guy Kebble up against the late Jan Lock, a battle that hadn’t gone well for the man known to his teammates as The Bull in the two games played in the regular season. It was no coincidence that Northerns won both those games fairly comfortably.

But Kebble reversed it from the first scrum in that final, and with the help of arguably the most destructive scrumming hooker the South African domestic competition has seen, Wallaby strongman Tom Lawton, and Gerhard Harding, who came in as a replacement for the injured Lood Muller, Natal got the go-forward they needed.

The opposition front row was far from Mickey Mouse too. Uli Schmidt and Heinrich Rodgers, both Springboks, were the other two members of the home front-row. They’d smashed all before them that season, just as their Natal opponents had, with the exception of the Bulls games.

It’s now 33 years on and there have been many other similar battles to follow on the tradition set by the two scrums who did battle in that frontier crossing day for KZN rugby when the Bulls and Sharks meet, and Saturday’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby at Loftus provides yet another mouth-watering match-up for those who love the darker arts.

The Sharks are without two injured Springbok World Cup winners in the front-row in the form of Bongi Mbonambi and Vincent Koch, but they do have the services of one Ox Nche. Who just happened to be the man who swung the game South Africa’s way at a crucial stage of the World Cup semifinal against England.

He’s up against a fellow Bok in Saturday’s eagerly anticipated clash, and although Wilco Louw wasn’t part of the Bok team that won the World Cup, he does have a huge standing within the game for his abilities in his primary role - scrummaging.

‘Wilco has a big reputation around his scrumming, he is a very tough scrummager. It will be competitive,” said Nche during a break in his team’s buildup to Saturday’s game.

“The Bulls have a very good pack and they have been putting teams away when it comes to the set piece. They scrum well as a unit and know what their plan is. It’s going to be a massive challenge for us, but we just have to be up for it and bring that physicality.”


Indeed, as Nche intimates there, scrumming is never just about two players. Or even two front rows.

And on that score, while Louw has been the headline addition with hooker Akker van der Merwe being just behind (he effectively replaced a legend of the game in the now retired Bismarck du Plessis), it has been the Bulls scrum unit as a whole that has been so impressive in the early parts of this edition of the URC.

Louw will be the player the Sharks will most fear though, and he has hurt them before, albeit long before Nche moved from Bloemfontein to Durban.

Again it was a Currie Cup final that features as the reference, as it so often does when it comes to front-row stories.

The Sharks had won the league comfortably, while their opponents, Western Province, had snuck into second place with a win over them in the last league game of the season.

To be fair, there was another player in that WP team that deserved more credit than he got for Province’s win, loosehead JC Janse van Rensburg, but it was Louw who stole the headlines as the product of Ceres fronted a Streeptruie scrum effort that completely destroyed the Sharks unit.

It’s a memory that might well inspire Louw, but he’s also up against a man this time who is every bit as important to his team as Kebble was 33 years ago.

And Nche is also a man who is determined not to let his standards slip after his heroics in France.

"When you set a certain standard or bar for yourself there is pressure to keep to that standard and that is the case for me at the moment," says Nche.