Insider: Trevor Nyakane
Blessed with a massive trademark smile that is as big as his heart, new Springbok Trevor Nyakane is on course to become a crowd favourite with the big performances he puts in.
But while the Cheetahs prop may be new to the national squad and still finding his feet at this level, he has already touched so many lives with his inspirational personality, infectious laugh and his rugby prowess.
Hoërskool Ben Vorster’s first Springbok and also the first from Tzaneen, Nyakane is truly “the big teddy bear that everyone wants to adopt”, according to his high school coach Andre Hay.
And there is a story to Nyakane’s rise that is as South African as it can be. It is the story of a young boy who “could run like the wind”, according to his father Norman, who started off with dreams of following his dad’s brief club football career, but finally switched to rugby and found a natural affinity.
Already a folk hero in his hometown Gravelotte, between Tzaneen and Phalaborwa, Nyakane is now set to steal the hearts of the rest of the country, who will react with as much pride and joy at his every run as the handful of friends and family who religiously watch him play on television week in and out.
Known at the Cheetahs by various nicknames, Nyakane started off being called Beast – but it didn’t last long. From there he was Tremor, with coach Naka Drotske and Os du Randt naming him Punja. But the nickname that stuck among his team-mates was Pumba – the lovable Walt Disney character and his big friendship with Raymond Rhule quickly dubbing the latter Timon.
Nyakane was seen at an early age as an athlete, and quickly made a name for himself at Gravelotte Primary School. He excelled in particular at football, with his father boasting “he has a lot of medals from those days still lying here at home.”
With his sights set on the round ball, Nyakane was rather surprised when he was asked to play rugby in Grade 4. Unsure of whether he should do it, he asked his mother Zondi – who later passed away from cancer when Trevor was in Grade 9 – and she agreed. Since then he never looked back.
In Grade 6 he moved to the front row, where his size and speed made him a unique acquisition – one that his high school picked up very quickly.
“I never had role models. Mainly, because at that age I never liked rugby. I only liked soccer, mainly because my dad played soccer. I didn’t think about rugby. I only thought about soccer. But after a while, I started enjoying it. It came naturally and the love of the game grew in me.”
Click on the image below to see, in pictures, how Trevor Nyakane's career progressed to date:
A GREAT TEAM MAN
But it was that love of the game that aroused the hunger for success in the Limpopo youngster, and started a quiet determination to succeed that few in the sport possess.
“In the beginning all I wanted to do was tackle. I loved tackling people,” he told Die Volksblad in an earlier interview.
“He’s precisely the same guy he was at school. Quiet, humble and hardworking,” his high school coach told supersport.com. “At high school he was a better soccer player than a rugby player. He did play rugby but made the first team soccer team and was the soccer player of the year at our school two years in a row.
“The choice though came automatically. He is a people’s person. He liked the camaraderie, and liked the team spirit that rugby brought. That’s what drew him, and he is a great team man,” Hay recalled.
Nyakane agrees, saying that “soccer was great, but I felt rugby offered me so many more opportunities and that’s what swayed it for me.”
His coach’s description was echoed by his forwards coach Os du Randt – the legendary Springbok who took Nyakane under his wing and has been coaching him for the past three years.
“He’s a great team man. The one thing that always impresses me is his manners. He is the type of guy you would easily want your daughter to bring home. He’s the type of son-in-law you would want – good manners and strong morals,” Du Randt waxed lyrically.
Playing football on Fridays and rugby on Saturdays was his high school life, until he made the Craven Week team in 2007 and was quickly snapped up by Free State.
“I always felt that Free State would test me,” Trevor admitted, “It was a place where I stepped out of my comfort zone and it was good for my career.”
From there the rise was meteoric. He started out at the third team for the Central University of Technology but was quickly fast-tracked upwards, starring in the Free State junior sides at under-19 and under-21 levels. But his breakthrough to senior rugby over the last two seasons has been more than impressive as he quickly established himself as one of the top players in Super Rugby.
For some it may have been a surprise, but for Du Randt it wasn’t and the Springbok legend sees a big future for Nyakane.
“We don’t have time nowadays with Super Rugby to give players a few years to find their feet. Players need to get up to that level as quickly as possible. The laws have also helped bring younger players through and to help them to scrum correctly at a technical level a lot earlier,” Du Randt explains.
“He is one of the best ball-carriers in the game, but he just does it too little. His scrum work is very safe and he never gives away penalties at the scrum. In the three years that I’ve worked with him, I can’t remember one time he conceded a penalty for hinging, or for any technical offence.
“But if I look at the times he carries the ball, he has a deceptive sidestep and defensive players don’t get him to ground as easily as they do other players. He is a guy who uses the ball well when it comes to him, but he isn’t a guy like Coenie (Oosthuizen) who chases the ball. That is one place where he can pick up his game in the future, but he is still young, so it will come.”
While Trevor’s impressive debut against Italy won him many fans, one incident in his career that stands out is the way he “saved” teammate Francois Uys during a recent game against the Waratahs. Nyakane lifted Uys to receive the ball at a kickoff and the lock lost his balance, falling precariously backwards and heading head first to the ground.
But Nyakane held on, keeping him in the air in a feat of magnificent strength and saved his teammate from certain injury.
“It was a scary moment,” he told Volksblad at the time. “All that I knew was that I needed to pick Swys up. I never thought something like that could happen. I looked up and saw the ball went over his head a bit and I needed to lift him higher.
“Then he suddenly fell backwards and I thought to myself: Lord don’t let this man fall, because that would be a tragedy. I told myself ‘if he falls then you are going to fall along with him.”
It was a moment that endured him more in fans’ eyes, underlining the fact he is a true team man who would do anything for his teammates.
The moment he was announced as a Bok was something of a shock for Nyakane, who heard the news in the changeroom after his team’s loss to the Bulls.
“They announced it in the changeroom. Meneer Verster (Free State CEO Harold Verster) read out the names. I couldn’t believe it at first, I literally pinched myself twice and then realised it was true. It was an amazing moment. My family then phoned me and congratulated me, then reminded me to keep working hard,” he smiles.
Part of being capped means Nyakane has to wear his cap for the entire week, and while it sits a little uncomfortably on his head during the interview, he gets excited when he is asked about it.
“It’s an honour. At the moment they can tell me to wear anything to be a Springbok. I’ll do anything. There are so many people who want to be in this position that I know how privileged I am. I’d do anything to keep my place in this team.”
Off the field Nyakane describes himself as a deep-rooted guy with a simple life. Not one to spend every extra minute on the golf course, he immerses himself in his PlayStation on tour, enjoying games such as Need for Speed to relax. His musical taste is as chilled as he is – deep house – which he loves.
“I’m laid back when it comes to real life cars; I’m not that into fast cars, I’d rather leave that to PlayStation.”
Nyakane spends most of his time with the special lady in his life, Gavaza Shiwundlana – a student in Johannesburg.
“The long distance isn’t easy, but we make it work. The commitment is there, so we try our best to overcome these obstacles.”
But one surprising fact that few people know is that he is fluent in six languages. Nyakane just gives his trademark smile when asked about this fact, but other than speaking perfect English and Afrikaans, his home language is Tsonga, while he picked up Sotho at home in Limpopo.
He also speaks Zulu and Xhosa to make him one of the most well-versed South Africans out there.
But Trevor remains a humble guy, and is probably best described by Hay who watched him grow up.
“What you see is what you get. When Trevor laughs, it comes from deep inside. When he cries it is the same. He’s the genuine article. I don’t think he will ever change. His friends all wanted to adopt him – the loveliest big teddy bear that they’ve ever met.
“I know he will stay the same for the rest of his life. He is a wonderful example for young players. We love him so much here in Tzaneen and at the school. He’s our pride and joy.”
If he keeps on his current route to the top, pretty soon the rest of the country will feel the same way.