The best thing about a 43-man Springbok squad is that it can cover all manner of sins as pretty much every man and his dog has a fair to middling chance of making it.
New Bok coach Johan “Rassie” Erasmus’ first squad was no different because – apart from a few grumbles from Johannesburg about the omission of Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronje, Andries Coetzee et al – most people were satisfied with the selected team.
But the first matchday 23, regardless whether it’s for a glorified friendly against Wales in Washington DC, always invites more scrutiny and speculation. Simply put, the moment Erasmus named the team to play Wales on Saturday the rest of us got to work on his team for the first Test against England next weekend.
And one of the curious names to emerge as one of those presumably being wrapped in cotton wool for the opening game of the three-Test series was Bulls tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane, what with fellow tighties Wilco Louw, Thomas du Toit and Frans Malherbe all having gone to the White House.
Given his past as a loosehead prop, strictly speaking one shouldn’t call Nyakane a tighthead prop lest it offends one of the contributors on these pages, a man who goes by the moniker of an army vehicle. Swing prop is apparently the acceptable term.
But Nyakane has played most of his rugby on the right side of the scrum this year and is the only tighthead left at home. Which begs the question: has he gone from being ridiculed as a failed experiment last year to the man hogging the spotlight for his scrummaging and not his dancing?
You have to remember that just four months ago Nyakane couldn’t make the Bulls Super Rugby squad, let alone the starting line-up, because he wasn’t meeting John Mitchell’s stringent conditioning standards at practice.
So how did he end up as potentially the rock upon which the Boks hope to build dominance? The most obvious answer to that is his conditioning.
Not only does he seem stronger at scrum time, having the fitness to shift that considerable weight around the paddock has also freed him up to showcase skills which had been rendered dormant by his lack of mobility: a good defence, exceptional work over the ball and the kind of handling, passing and awareness of space which prove that he did play centre as a youngster.
It has also been to Nyakane’s benefit that his partnerships with Lizo Gqoboka, Pierre Schoeman and Adriaan Strauss in the Bulls front row have unhinged a lot of reputations in Super Rugby. Most importantly for Nyakane, whatever the Bulls front-row permutations were throughout the season, he was the lone constant on the tighthead side the moment he regained his starting XV spot.
A big part of Nyakane’s struggles, particularly at Bok level, were how little game time he got – he’s started just two of 36 Test matches, at loosehead prop – and the fact that he kept on being played to make up the numbers despite being badly conditioned and out of form.
The latter was particularly unfair on him because he has always been talented (ask his old scrum coach at the Cheetahs, Os du Randt) and the only thing that was lacking was application to go with said ability, which seems to have been resolved by the penny finally dropping now that he’s 29.
If Nyakane does start against England, there will be an element of luck because many would have expected the Stormers’ Wilco Louw to be ahead of him on the pecking order as the incumbent, however few caps he boasts.
But the Stormers, in Malherbe’s injury-enforced absence, seem to have abused Louw’s strength and durability by playing him into the ground during the Super Rugby season. While Nyakane may not be as strong a scrummager as Louw, he has the better all-round game.