Nokwe's patience pays off

It was a dream turnaround for under-pressure Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. After fierce criticism of his approach in the week leading up to the Johannesburg Test, De Villiers’s team finally found the cohesion and intensity they have lacked all season, handing the indifferent Wallabies a 53-8 thrashing.

But the cherry on the top was undoubtedly the performance of Cheetahs wing Jongikhaya “Jongi” Nokwe, who touched down four of the eight tries scored by the Boks, setting a new record against the Wallabies.

Within a day, popular social networking site Facebook saw the creation of a “Jongi Nokwe Appreciation Group”, as fans began singing the praises of the new Bok hero.

But Nokwe’s rise has not been meteoric.
The winger, known for his speed and swerving sidestep, has spent a long time patiently working his way up the ranks.

Nokwe was born in Ngxalawe in Ciskei and started playing rugby while a student at Kwamfundo High in Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town. The talented youngster graduated through the ranks of Cape club rugby into the Boland Cavaliers in 2003.

Strong performances there and in the South African Sevens rugby squad led to his first Bok call-up in 2004, when Jake White included him in the touring squad that visited the British Isles following success in the 2004 Tri-Nations.

The uncapped player was given a Bok blazer but, as per tradition, was not allowed to wear it. Instead Nokwe would have carried it over his arm during the tour, where he did not get to play.

The sensational rise of Bryan Habana in 2005 closed off room for another flying left wing, leaving Nokwe to bide his time at the Cavaliers for another three years.

However, the 26-year-old grabbed the opportunity to move from the relative backwaters of the Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup first division into the harsher limelight of the Super 14, when he moved to the Cheetahs at the beginning of this year.

Nokwe acknowledges that it was his move to the Bloemfontein-based franchise that allowed him to up his game, saying: “I set myself a goal. I knew that if I could perform in the Super 14, I could earn my [Springbok] call-up.”

And perform he did. Nokwe was one of the stand-out players in an otherwise disappointing Cheetahs’ Super 14 season, and followed that up with strong showings in this year’s Currie Cup.

He became the obvious back-up to Habana, and made a strong debut a month ago against Argentina, scoring a try in his first match. Nokwe says he was thrilled to finally earn his call-up: “I was so excited to wear my Bok blazer; I’ve been waiting since 2004.”

South African rugby fortunately has a number of quality wingers it can draw on, as was shown last Saturday, when right wing Odwa Ndungane also performed superbly, setting up Nokwe for his fourth try.

So Nokwe may find it difficult to hang on to his number 11 jersey, particularly with Habana back on the mend. He says, though, that “it is good to have competition in each position. I must keep working to keep up with Bryan [Habana] and JP Pietersen”.

Last weekend’s result saw the Boks regain a position in the International Rugby Board (IRB) rankings. They are now in second place, behind New Zealand, with Australia slipping down to third. Argentina ensure a southern hemisphere dominance in the rankings by rounding out the top four.

Percy Montgomery, whose 102 Test-cap record looks safe for a good while yet, decided to end his international career on a high note, announcing his retirement from the Test arena after the victory against the Wallabies. The veteran has not entirely hung up his boots just yet, as he joins Western Province for the rest of the Currie Cup and is contracted to turn out for the Stormers in next year’s Super 14.

The Bok players dispersed this week to their respective provinces, and will be turning out for their Currie Cup teams as the local tournament heads into its second half.

De Villiers will reform his squad in two months’ time, in preparation for the tour involving matches against Wales, Scotland and England in November.

We hear much of how the Eastern Cape is a well of untapped black rugby talent, which only needs exposure and support to shine at international level.

Like Makhaya Ntini in cricket, Nokwe has become a role model for the next generation of players to come out of the province’s many small, dusty villages.

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