PARIS, France — Ox Nche loves scrummaging so much he’s made a clothing range out of his craft. The Springboks’ destructive loose-head, the man who turned the balance of the Rugby World Cup semifinal against England in South Africa’s favour, has a t-shirt with the slogan: “Salads don’t win scrums.”
While lettuce may not be the fuel behind his 123kg frame, Nche’s technique does win scrums. It’s why he’s one of the most-feared front-rowers in the sport, and also why if the All Blacks are to win their fourth World Cup title on Saturday in Paris, they’re going to have to find a way to nullify Nche’s power and impact off the bench.
The Springboks’ bench is called the ‘bomb squad’, a group of elite operatives whose mission it is to build on the work the starting XV have done and finish the job. They helped tilt the balance of the 2019 World Cup in South Africa’s favour, and they’ve made a similar impact on this year’s competition as France and England found out to their cost.
But anchoring it all is Nche. Ask the man himself how he manages to get the better of the opposition on so many occasions, and he keeps his cards close to his chest. “That is the dark arts,” he said soon after the semifinal win over England. “It is hard to explain to you.”
Nche, 28, was an injury doubt coming into this World Cup. He missed the Rugby Championship with a pectoral muscle injury, suffering the setback in the gym. But he featured in their warm-up matches against Wales and then the All Blacks, and much to the delight of his coaches, teammates and supporters, he was passed fit to be part of the “bomb squad” at the World Cup.
“The ‘bomb squad’ has a plan,” Springboks prop Vincent Koch says, who is the other impact prop for the Boks. “Each person knows exactly his role in the team, whether you’re starting or in the bomb squad. And from the start. When we created the ‘bomb squad’, we knew exactly what our job was. The starters start the whole process and it’s for us to come and finish it.”
Though this has been Nche’s World Cup, and his performances have been dominating headlines, his impact is no surprise to those who have tracked his ability since his schooldays.
His full name is Retshegofaditswe Nché, his first name translating as “We are Blessed”. He came through the Free State system, having been born in Bloemfontein, and played for South African Schools. He cut his teeth with the Cheetahs at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level, playing through the South African age grade system until he made his Springboks debut against Wales in Washington DC in 2018.
“We have been working with him from school, through the under-20s, and now being part of the Springboks team, so to see that development from him as a player and as a person is tremendous and such an inspiring feeling from a coaching perspective,” South Africa forwards coach Deon Davids said.
Springboks scrum coach Daan Human also knows Nche well, having coached him at the Cheetahs before taking up the Springboks scrum coach post in 2020. “I was fortunate enough to coach him ever since I think he was 18-years-old, so for the last 10 years,” Human said on Monday.
Nche, who has 27 caps, missed out on selection in 2019, but was the heir-apparent to Tendai Mtawarira when the great loose-head retired after the last World Cup.
The worrying thing? Human thinks Nche hasn’t yet peaked.
“I must say he has made progress, I don’t think we have seen the best of him yet,” Human added. “I think from 28 to 32 as a front-row player that is when you are getting into your prime. I think there is still a lot of work he can do.”
Against England on Saturday, Nche came on as a 49th minute replacement with fellow ‘bomb squad’ tight-head Vincent Koch joining him in the 56th minute. Nche and starting tight-head Frans Malherbe won the Boks’ first of four scrum penalties against Joe Marler and Dan Cole in the 51st minute. Marler was replaced by Ellis Genge on 53 minutes, with Kyle Sinckler then coming on for Cole in the 56th minute.
On the hour-mark, England had a five-metre scrum on the Boks’ line, but the double-act of Nche and Koch swung that in South Africa’s favour, for their second scrum penalty in a row. The third scrum penalty on 67 minutes gave the Boks a chance to kick for an attacking lineout, from which RG Snyman scored. Then came the last throw of the dice, the scrum penalty they won on the 77th minute near the halfway line, from which Handre Pollard kicked the match-winning three points a minute later.
“I honestly rate Genge, I rate Sinckler,” Nche said after the win. “To say Joe Marler and Dan Cole are better scrummager is to under-estimate them. I feel it is difficult to scrum against Kyle and I think it would have been the same with Dan Cole. Our plan was simple: get to know the guy who is across from you. Me and Kyle have played against each other for quite a while and I have got to know him.”
But it still all begs the question of why and how Nche is so destructive. “There’s not a lot to say, he’s very strong, significantly more powerful than most other props in the world, even the very best ones,” David Flatman, the former England prop and rugby analyst, tells ESPN. “He’s in good shape, he’s a barrel so it’s hard to work around him, and he’s short so he gets underneath people.
“Loose-heads ultimately want to get underneath tightheads; they want to get the crown of their head on their sternum and lift them up and he’s very good at that as he’s already down there. Even when props get low against him, he’s happy to hinge.
“Like his first scrum against Dan Cole. Dan Cole got him in a nice position, a nice flat back doing well. But Ox Nche is bent at the hips a little bit and he’s so strong in his lower back, like a deadlift movement, he can deadlift you out of the hole and once he’s got you popping backwards, he gets underneath you as he’s not tall, so really it’s freakish power.”
His teammates also know Nche’s power well having experienced it first-hand in training. “He’s an unbelievable player, an unbelievable scrummager, and around the park as well,” Koch said of Nche soon after the semifinal win. “Definitely one of the strongest looseheads I’ve scrummaged against — and I’ve scrummaged against him every week. He’s an unbelievable rugby player, still very young and he’s got an unbelievable future.
“He’s very strong, probably one of the strongest in our team. But he’s got unbelievable technique as well. His body type suits him. He’s nice and short and the biggest thing is he targets a way where other tightheads think they are in control — and that is where he comes to play.”
Nche may dodge salads, preferring some chocolate caramel cakes, but whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
Up next is the All Blacks on Saturday. They have a plan for Nche. “He is some human, isn’t he,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said Tuesday. “Wow. He is strong at what he does but we’ve got a pretty good plan we believe in as well. We’ll be up for it.” But planning on how to stop Nche and the ‘bomb squad’ is one thing, nullifying their impact is another.
“He is a great player and person but it is a cohesion effort,” Human says of Nche. “It is not a one-man show. You cannot solve problems or go forward by yourself.”