The word ‘breakthrough’ may not be appropriate to use in the same sentence as Orlando Pirates defender Ntsikelelo Nyauza.
But it is still somehow relevant when used in the context of the big centre-back’s final emergence from the shadows in the Bucs team.
At 30, Nyauza is no longer the fresh-faced youngster who was introduced to the elite league by the now-defunct Platinum Stars during the 2010/11 season, before his big move to Pirates three years later.
Despite his long service at Bucs, “Somjita” has been in and out of the reckoning, while a group of players he came through with at academy level got their break at Pirates.
Among them were Oupa Manyisa, Joseph Molangoane, Patrick Phungwayo, Mpho Makola, Lehlogonolo Masalesa and Menzi Masuku.
This group graduated from the Africa Sport Youth Development Academy, which was founded by Harold Legodi, who himself had a brief stint as an assistant coach at Pirates.
“Oupa really laid the path for us because Pirates and Chiefs scouts constantly kept an eye on our academy for new talent, because we participated in the same league [under Safa Johannesburg],” Nyauza told City Press this week.
He admitted that it was not easy to break through in a roster teeming with established defenders such as Lucky Lekgwathi, Happy Jele, Siyabonga Sangweni, Rooi Mahamutsa, Ayanda Gcaba and Thabo Matlaba.
While biding his time, Nyauza indeed proved that patience is a virtue.The 2017/18 campaign under then coach Milutin Sredojevic presented him with what were his record appearances in a Bucs jersey, a tally he matched last season.
The impressive 2019/20 figures came after a paltry five league appearances he made during the 2018/19 campaign.
“Hard work and being patient helped. At the same time, I learnt a lot from the experienced and quality defenders that Pirates have always had over the years.
“They mentored me and I can proudly say I am using the same experience in my game today,” Nyauza said.
Since the arrival of new head coach Josef Zinnbauer in December 2019, the soft-spoken defender has been an ever-present fixture in the German tactician’s starting line-up, barring two occasions when he was injured.
The versatile defender has been a common denominator in a rather consistent back four that has had newcomers Thulani Hlatshwayo and Wayde Jooste also featuring regularly.
Paseka Mako and Innocent Maela have been alternating at left back.
Nyauza, however, has played every minute for Pirates in the team’s 15 games across all competitions so far this season, and occasionally wore the captain’s armband.
With his imposing frame in central defence, Pirates have managed an improved defensive record compared with how they started last season.
In 10 DStv Premiership fixtures, Nyauza and his defensive unit have let in just eight goals, compared with the 13 the team conceded after the same number of games in the last campaign.
2019/20: 24 league games, 1 goal
2018/19: 5 league games
2017/18: 24 league games, 3 cup competitions, 4 goals
2016/17: 12 league games, 1 cup competition
2015/16: 20 league games, 7 cup competitions
2014/15: 18 league games, 3 cup competitions
2013/14: 7 league games
“When coach Zinnbauer came in, he found us conceding a lot of goals, but he turned our structure around, putting more emphasis on defensive before offensive [work]. The coach believes in my ability, strengths and the fact that I am vocal,” explained Nyauza, who has established a good understanding in central defence with the equally hard-tackling Hlatshwayo.
That Pirates also conceded just one goal en route to lifting the MTN8 title last month points to the impressive work of Nyauza and his co-defenders.
“Communication at the back keeps us on our toes. I am also happy at how quickly Tyson [Hlatshwayo] and Jooste have adapted to our style of play. I must also give credit to Inno [Maela] for coming through in central defence whenever he was called on. It shows that we’ve got depth,” said Nyauza.
The born-and-bred Johannesburger captained the Bucs in their 3-0 win over Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila midweek in the absence of Hlatshwayo, who was serving suspension.
The game was the third time that Pirates kept a clean slate in a league fixture.
They are going back to the same Thohoyandou Stadium this afternoon to face bottom-placed Black Leopards.
Nyauza emphasised the importance of collecting maximum points from the game to close the gap at the top.
Leopards have been struggling for positive results. Their fortunes have not turned around, even after they recruited former Pirates defender Lehlohonolo Seema recently to be head coach Dylan Kerr’s assistant.
Kerr rejoined the club in November after the Venda-based outfit fired Belgian coach Patrick Aussems after just three games in charge.
Leopards have won only one game in nine league outings so far.