Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Sharks wing ODWA NDUNGANE talks about the rise of S’bu Nkosi, the Springboks’ Rugby Championship chances and the duel at Newlands on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Your take on South Africa’s Super Rugby struggles this season?
Odwa Ndungane: It’s sad to say, but it has been a very difficult Super Rugby campaign for the South African teams this season. It’s quite disappointing in that we might only have one team in the playoffs. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly was has gone array this term from a South African perspective, our teams’ two-from-20 tour record in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament, tells its own tale. For South African teams, this season has been about missed opportunities. In terms of my former team, the Sharks, I would hope that coach Robert du Preez is creating a good culture in Durban. It’s important for players to be happy and enjoy what they are doing. Talent can only get you so far and team work will always prevail in the end. The Sharks have traditionally been a team that has featured in the playoffs and, even though we have always fallen short, we have always been in with a shout. From the outside looking in, one would hope that there is a big buy-in from the players. I’m sure it must be difficult having his three boys in the squad, but I would hope that Du Preez is managing that very well. Meanwhile, the Bulls may be second from bottom in the South African conference, but I believe John Mitchell has done something amazing with the franchise in a relatively short space of time. He is transforming the Pretoria-based side and I foresee them becoming one of the best franchises in Super Rugby a year or two from now.
Sport24 asked: Which young South African wings have caught your attention?
Odwa Ndungane: I’m excited in terms of what the future holds for S’bu Nkosi. Having spent some time with him two years before I brought the curtain down on my playing career, I have been following his progress closely. He has always had the talent, coupled with the hunger to work hard. His work rate is second to none and he can be seen after training working on extras. In terms of game play, I enjoy S’bu’s physicality. He is big and strong, but is not one-dimensional. Owing to his size, you would think he would only run over opponents, but he mixes it up with a neat step. The biggest aspect of his game that sets him apart is his work-rate. It isn’t something that can be taught and comes from within. Meanwhile, I have been watching Aphiwe Dyantyi this year from his first Super Rugby game and I have been enthused by what I have seen. He plays the game with a smile on his face and without fear. His energy is infectious at the Lions and it rubbed off on the Springboks. It’s pleasing to see youngsters coming through and stepping up at the highest level. I’m always pushing for talented players to be afforded opportunities and Nkosi and Dyantyi have grabbed their starting berths with both hands. The pair took to Test rugby like ducks to water and I know that they’ll continue to do well and enjoy illustrious international careers.
Sport24 asked: Can Peter de Villiers bring the Zimbabwe rugby team back to life?
Odwa Ndungane: If he has the right support and resources, I’m sure he will turn Zimbabwe’s rugby fortunes around. I definitely enjoyed my time working with him at the Springboks and he backed me as a player. (Ndungane played all of his nine Tests under De Villiers from 2008 to 2011). Being the guy that he is, Peter is quite passionate about the game and he knows his rugby. As a man-manager, he was one of the best I played under and everyone felt comfortable around him. As a coach, even though you are the leader of the team, you must still be able to create an environment whereby players can question you and Peter was always open to discussion. I really enjoyed Peter as a coach and, for me, he is definitely one of the best mentors to have coached the Springboks. His record speaks for itself and under him we won twice in New Zealand and memorably claimed the Tri-Nations title by winning in Hamilton in 2009. It was one of my proudest moments as a Springbok because, having lost the previous week in Australia, many people doubted we would clinch the title in New Zealand. However, after our loss in Perth, Peter rallied the players and created an environment in which everyone believed we would win the game and the Tri-Nations. We had a quiet self-belief that we would pull it off and there was never any doubt.
Sport24 asked: What are the Springboks’ chances in the Rugby Championship?
Odwa Ndungane: To be quite honest, the 2018 Rugby Championship is not going to be easy for the Springboks. We have to be patient with what we have at the moment and can’t underestimate the impact the losses had on the team last year. South Africa did well to win the three-Test series against England, but still have a long way to go. The way the Boks started the first two Tests against the English wasn’t ideal and, if they do the same against their opponents in the Rugby Championship, it won’t be as easy to launch a comeback. If the Springboks hope to win the Rugby Championship, the bottom line is that they simply cannot lose any home matches. I don’t care if it’s New Zealand or whoever else - you have to win on home turf. I would love to believe the Boks can win the Rugby Championship this year, but realistically I don’t think they can do so yet. As a relatively new team, they still have a long way to go. I believe the Springboks’ biggest goal should be in terms of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It will prove the ultimate gauge in terms of how far they have developed as a team. For now, the Rugby Championship will be a good acid test for the Springboks, but doing well at the World Cup will be the main prize... The All Blacks will always be a difficult team to beat because they have created such a strong winning culture. Are the All Blacks beatable? Yes, definitely. But they don’t lose often because they have buy-in from everyone and know they can go in on match-day with the ability to beat any opponent. Having lost a number of key players after the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, you could have been forgiven for thinking the All Blacks may struggle to remain at the top. However, the All Blacks swept to back-to-back Rugby Championship titles in 2016 and 2017.
Sport24 asked: Is the beautiful game a sport which remains close to your heart?
Odwa Ndungane: Most certainly. Soccer was a big passion of mine and I grew up playing the sport in Umtata. I only took up rugby from the age of 14. My twin brother, Akona, and I have always supported the two big Soweto teams in South Africa. However, he was and still is the confused one supporting Kaizer Chiefs, while I’m an Orlando Pirates fan. In terms of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it has proved very unpredictable. I believe it’s good for soccer because every teams needs to be on top of their game. A number of teams have gone to Russia and have been undone by thinking that they simply have to arrive in order to win. Irrespective of what you have achieved before and the quality of players in your arsenal, if you don’t perform on the day your name is only as big as the newspaper font it’s written in. Once you take to the field, you are equal. If you think your name is going to carry you across the line, you’ve got another thing coming. To be honest, I’m disappointed to see Brazil and Belgium playing each other so early in the tournament, as I predicted they would meet in the final. I foresee the winner of Brazil-Belgium going all the way and lifting the coveted trophy. From an African perspective, this World Cup has been a bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps it is a mental hurdle we need to overcome as a continent. When Nigeria played against Argentina, it didn’t look like the players believed they could beat their South American adversaries. Owing to the quality among the African teams, we should definitely have one or two sides in the quarter-finals. African sides are technically sound but, at times, lack tactical awareness.
Sport24 asked: Have you been disappointed with player behaviour at the Soccer World Cup?
Odwa Ndungane: Yes. I watched the Colombia-England game the other night and it was terrible to see how the Colombian players treated the referee. The behaviour is totally unacceptable because we have youngsters watching the game and looking up to their heroes. Professional players have a responsibility to set to the right example. After the World Cup, FIFA really need to examine how they can work towards changing player behaviour because it’s not good for the game. Over and above players crowding the referee and furiously questioning his decisions, diving and going to ground for nothing is a bugbear of mine. We see players get hit on their shoulders and then they roll around and hold their heads. That behaviour is pathetic to say the least, and hopefully the powers that be cut out the play-acting because we all love the game. Player discipline in soccer used to be okay, but now it seems to be getting out of hand. In contrast, rugby players get on with the game because referees have been given the authority to curb bad behaviour. Soccer needs to look at sanctions where backchat isn’t tolerated and players are sent off for five or 10 minutes.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the showdown at Newlands on Saturday?
Odwa Ndungane: I’m expecting a very tough coastal clash in Cape Town. I played against Western Province and the Stormers a few times at Newlands over the course of my career and the derbies have traditionally proved to be physical affairs. The Stormers are under pressure because they haven’t done well this season (five wins from 15 matches) and will want to complete their campaign with a win on home soil. However, on the other hand, the Sharks need to win in the Mother City to keep their Super Rugby playoff hopes alive. The Sharks head down to Cape Town with momentum, having beaten the Lions last Saturday at Kings Park. In terms of the front row duel, it will be like Springbok trials. We are in for a big battle on Saturday and, for me, whoever dominates upfront will come away with the spoils.