Johannesburg - Sbu Nkosi, the soft-spoken yet intrepid Sharks winger who made his debut for the Springboks yesterday, is open and frank about everything except one – his middle name.
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Said middle name is Romeo, the kind of cute and cuddly name no hard-boiled rugby player wants to be associated with. Having defused all kinds of up-and-under bombs in his maiden press conference as a Bok, the 22-year-old clammed up (as in “I don’t want to talk about it, not at all”) when pressed on the origins of a middle name that invokes puppy eyes.
This is literally the only thing the explosively built and powerful winger won’t confront head on, which can’t be said for his rugby career, the Springbok culmination of which has been as relentless as it has been meteoric.
A little over a year ago, Nkosi was at a photo shoot for players destined to play the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, the bottom rung of professional rugby in the country. The story of the rapid nature of the strides he has made since then was told by his Bok debut against England yesterday.
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Many would accept that getting this far this quickly, even for someone who has always made age group teams, has been a dizzying ride, but Nkosi will have none of it: “I feel everything happens in its own perfect timing. The fact that it is happening now means the timing is perfect.
“I’m a more experienced player than I was last year because I’ve played more rugby and I’ve learnt some lessons along the way, especially this season. So I think the timing is perfect.”
A big part of why Nkosi feels that getting into the Bok team is a simple case of destiny is how long he has wanted to be a Springbok.
“It sounds a bit surreal to say it, but I feel like I’ve always wanted to be a Springbok,” he explains. “I’ve never had a doubt in my mind. My mum’s always been in my ear because she could always see how passionate I was about it from when I was young, so she never let me have a single doubt in my mind.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to and I’ve always known that I was going to. Sport is a tough world and you need that kind of faith if you want to pull through to the highest level and, most importantly, stay at the highest level.”
Where Nkosi’s story becomes surreal is when we look at how he made it.
Born in Barberton, he taught himself running skills by watching YouTube videos. It is from that self-help background that he made the Mpumalanga Pumas’ Grant Khomo Week side, which led to a Jake White scholarship at Jeppe High School for Boys from Grade 11, where he played Craven Week rugby for the Golden Lions before defecting to the Sharks via the SA Under-20 side.
According to Sharks assistant coach Dick Muir and former Jeppe head of rugby Janse van der Ryst, few people were as driven or learnt faster than Nkosi.
“I only started working with him in November last year,” said Muir. “From the very first day I saw him, I realised he had something special. He’s got amazing footwork, speed and the biggest drive to get to the top I’ve seen in a player.
“When you tell a player what he needs to do to improve, you expect to repeat yourself – that is not the case with Sbu. An example was that his high ball skills were shaky when we met and now he comfortably catches above his head.”
Van der Ryst spoke of Nkosi’s mental strength: “He’s one strong-willed individual; he knows what he wants and works for it. He started playing the game late and, at the beginning, one might have thought he wasn’t skilled enough, but the growth he’s shown at the Sharks has been remarkable.”
It helps that Nkosi comes with a deceptive frame, which makes him a stocky 97kg, despite being 2cm shy of being 1.8m tall. Couple that with the speed that saw him clock 10.59 seconds over 100m and the footwork that made him a “good attacking midfielder”, and you have what Muir calls “an awkward player who goes forward in contact and never dies with the ball”.
To gain a sense of Nkosi’s intentions now that he is a Bok, you have to look at his role models – Beast Mtawarira, Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane – men whose careers were about durability.
“Beast has always been great for the Springboks and shown an amount of passion and desire that is undying. I think I can learn a lot from that,” Nkosi says.
“It’s not quite a dream come true yet; it’s the beginning of a dream come true. I don’t just want to play for the Springboks, I want to be excellent for the Springboks and I want to do great things in the jersey.”
The one person who will be happy to hear about his knuckle-down attitude is his mother Constance, an employee at the department of roads and transport in Mpumalanga, and the person responsible for stoking his motivational fires – and probably the only person brave enough to call him Romeo to his face.
“I think she’ll be overjoyed, but she’ll be the first person to calm me down and make sure that my mind is on the task,” he said before speaking to her on Thursday. “So I think she’ll be happy for a few minutes and then say: ‘Let’s get back down to earth and deal with the moment.’”
Perhaps as a nod to becoming a Bok (he flatly denies it, although he only did it last week), Nkosi cut off his trademark dreadlocks and sports something more conventional.
Don’t be fooled by his laid-back exterior; this means an awful lot to him.