Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Cheetahs front-ranker Ox Nche, uncapped at this point, is just another example of a multitude of selection dilemmas facing Springbok coach Allister Coetzee in the fast-looming Test season.
In short, the 21-year-old, low-centre-of-gravity loosehead prop looks increasingly like an inviting infusion off a Test bench ... perhaps an ideal way for the young phenomenon to find his feet at international level.
The head-scratcher arguably counting a little against a green-and-gold nod at this juncture would be whether he cuts it yet for wisdom and acceptable oomph at the highest tier as a scrummager.
Nevertheless, already saluted last season by 1995 RWC-winning tight-five icon and television pundit Kobus Wiese as an “yster” for his tigerish and industrious contribution to open play, Nche only continues to blossom in that capacity in 2017.
In Friday night’s Super Rugby heart-stopper against the Highlanders in Bloemfontein, Nche put in as full-blooded and energetic a showing as you could wish for from a front-rower, to the extent that there was no culpability on his part for the disastrous last four or five minutes when the hosts somehow let slip a 17-point lead to allow the New Zealanders to snatch the spoils 45-41.
Even as the Highlanders staged their dramatic rear-guard action, the increasingly popular prop with a genial off-field disposition kept his personal engine ticking valiantly, doing his level best in track-back defence to stem the tide.
For example, he pulled off a jersey-grabbing, potentially try-saving tackle near the line in a move that eventually led to a Highlanders dot-down once the ball had been spun out to wider channels anyway, and he was truly “spent” after the heart-breaking final whistle, lying on his back in despair and exhaustion.
In the earlier, generous part of the breathless contest in which the Cheetahs had actually bossed things impressively, Nche was often at the fulcrum of things, making genuinely thumping hits and revelling in ball-in-hand moments as well – the way he streaked away for his own try in the 61st minute was one of the key highlights in a fixture hardly lacking them.
His near-ceaseless marauding and physical relish in general play, a tonic to all around him in orange jerseys, once again reminded so strongly of his similarly-nicknamed longtime predecessor in the No 1 shirt at Free State Stadium, one Os du Randt.
I saw such striking similarities between the two, on Friday, in the way Nche - his proper first name of Retshegofaditswe would be a wonderful one to inflict on Australasian TV commentators if they didn’t have the Ox copout - almost “snuck up” on unsuspecting opponents to flatten them unceremoniously but legally.
The double World Cup-winning legend Du Randt, now 44, somehow used to be able to “tiptoe” up on foes despite his 130kg-plus frame ... perhaps there is some relevance in the fact that a moment against France, the Boks’ first 2017 opponents over three Tests in June, stands out most vividly in this writer’s own mind.
Playing Les Bleus at Newlands in 2006 in what was otherwise an unusually galling day at the venue for the Boks as they were well beaten 36-26, Du Randt at one point was loitering with intent in the middle of the park, unbeknown to French scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili who had tracked back to pluck up a loose ball and then took a languid second or two surveying his options for a fresh attack.
It was a fatal second too long, as Du Randt hungrily lined him up like a Kruger Park lion would on a meal-time buck, and absolutely steamrolled into him from the side, fairly but with bone-crunching effect; the No 9 did well to stand up and regain just a semblance of dignity.
Of course Nche is a quite markedly different physical animal to Du Randt, considering that he stands at only 1.73m, and weighs a less than formidable 106kg for a prop.
But the emerging star more than makes up in pure “ticker” and body-on-line commitment what he surrenders a bit on the scale.
At this stage, Nche hasn’t quite yet shown a consistent ability to visibly dominate tighthead foes at the set-piece, even if he tends to be acceptably workmanlike and steady for the most part.
Would it be a noticeable problem, for instance, if a greatly more experienced starting Bok No 1 like veteran incumbent Tendai Mtawarira or (the similarly highly-touted) Steven Kitshoff had to come off injured early in a major Test match and someone like Nche was thrown to the scrummaging wolves for a really lengthy period of play?
That is something for Bok coach Coetzee to contemplate fairly deeply; it is also possible that a domestic rival like the Sharks’ beefy Thomas du Toit, in increasingly compelling form at a good time, will act as a further barrier to a maiden Test call-up this year for the tenacious Free Stater.
But as long as Nche keeps offering such vibrancy and clattering commitment around the park, the thought of unleashing him for meaningful impact off the bench at a reasonably advanced stage of internationals only becomes a more tantalising one ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing