Odwa: The ultimate SA rugby servant

Odwa Ndungane (Gallo)
Odwa Ndungane (Gallo)

Cape Town - When the Sharks beat the Blue Bulls in a low-key Currie Cup match in Durban last weekend, the celebrations that followed were worthy of a Rugby World Cup final. 

Under pressure in the final minutes, the home side held on for a gritty 26-19 win that ensured four wins from four in 2016 and a spot at the top of the tournament log. 

At the heart of that performance, and of those celebrations, was 35-year-old Odwa Ndungane. 

The former Springbok wing fist-pumped his way through the moments that followed the final whistle, embracing his team-mates, congratulating them on a job of resilience well done.

Somehow, 16 years into his playing career, Ndungane still has a passion for the game that burns as brightly today as it did in his breakthrough years at Border in the early 2000s. 

Seeing a 35-year-old doing the business at the highest level is a rare thing in rugby, and even more startling is Ndungane's work load. 

He has started three of the Sharks' four Currie Cup matches this season, while he played 14 of the 16 matches in Super Rugby this year.

"I’ve been quite fortunate to not have sustained any serious injuries. That has been the one big thing that has kept me going," Ndungane says over the phone from Durban, waiting to get his car washed.

He is from Mthatha, schooled at Hudson Park in East London, but Durban is well and truly home now. 

"When people get a bit older, especially if they’ve picked up a knee injury or a shoulder injury, it damages them quite a lot ... I’ve been quite fortunate where I’ve never had any of those serious injuries.

"Obviously now, the most important thing is for me to do my recovery. I can’t just play a game and have a weekend where I stay at home and sleep. I’ve got to go through my recovery so that, come Monday, I’m ready to go again."

He gets a bit of stick from management for spending more time than others in the physio room or on the massage table, but Ndungane says those sessions are a crucial part of why he is able to play alongside players almost half his age. 

The early days: Ndungane turning out for Border in 2001 (Gallo Images)

It has been a quite remarkable career, though his contribution to the game is easily overlooked as the ongoing dramas of the national team and South African rugby hog headlines. 

Used predominantly on the right wing, Ndungane's strength under the high ball and educated boot have combined to see him used as an emergency fullback on numerous occasions at the Sharks, even as recently as this year's Currie Cup.

He has just 9 Tests to his name, including a World Cup clash against Fiji in 2011, but that number would surely have been higher had he not played in the same era as South Africa's all-time leading try scorer, Bryan Habana. 

There are no regrets or hard feelings when looking back at his international career, but there is one thing that Ndungane would have liked. 

"It would have been special to play a Test match with my brother," he says.

Bulls legend and Odwa's twin, Akona Ndungane, played all of his 11 Tests over 2006 and 2007, before Odwa had made his debut in 2008.

Like his brother, Akona also played a single World Cup match for the Boks - against the USA in Montpelier in 2007. 

"It’s a memory that we will treasure forever and we’ll share it with the family whenever we get together in the years to come," Ndungane says.

"But in terms of regrets, none at all. It’s always special getting a chance to play for the Boks. It was an amazing privilege and honour."

Ndungane in action against Fiji at the 2011 World Cup (Gallo).

There are, as is the case in any career that lasts this long, many highlights and the task of identifying just one is not easy.

"The 2013 Currie Cup final that we won in Cape Town," Ndungane eventually offers.

"What made it special is that there were so many things happening that year.

"John Plumtree left the union after a lot of years and then we had Brendan Venter coming in … there were a lot of changes.

"To win the final in Cape Town was special. Nobody gave us a chance against a very good Western Province team but we just pulled together and showed what a good vibe and team spirit we had."

It is one of three Currie Cup winners medals that Ndungane has. 

He says that there is a real drive this year to make it number four; that passion again unmissable as he describes the Sharks' chances in 2016. 

"In the past couple of seasons we’ve been disappointed in our Currie Cup campaigns. It’s something we’ve spoken about quite intensely," he says.

"This year there is a real will to do well. We’ve got a lot of the guys who played Super Rugby … so it’s a big focus for us."

But what next for Ndungane? Another season? It is a decision that he is thinking long and hard about.

"My body is still feeling quite good … the most important thing is that I feel like I can still contribute," he says.

"As it stands, we haven’t made any announcements or decisions. I’m speaking to my wife quite seriously about the way forward.

"I have a chat every now and again to the guys I played with in the past and the one thing they say is that once you stop, you can’t go back. When you make that call you’ve got to make sure it’s what you want. You don’t want to come back six months down the line regretting it.

"I’m just going to make sure that it’s the right decision for the team, myself and my family."

If it is the end of the road, then there are already plans to keep busy. 

Ndungane has started a construction business with soon-to-be new Sharks CEO Gary Teichmann, while he is also launching a sports agency with Akona.

"We need to give back to rugby and we want to give mentorship to a lot of these young players coming through," he says of his new venture with his brother. 

For now, though, Ndungane's focus is on guiding this Sharks to a win against Western Province in Cape Town. 

He has made this trip countless times, but never once half-heartedly. 

"I think the one thing that’s kept me so passionate is the group that we have at the union. People get along with each other. Everyone just wants to give for the team and I think you could see with the celebrations how much it meant to every single guy to get that win," he says of last weekend's Bulls win.

Ndungane will start in the No 14 jersey on Saturday - a sight that Sharks fans have seen for over a decade.

In a competition that is struggling in terms of generating public interest, the curtain could be coming down on one of the most esteemed careers in South African rugby history. 

When he does go, his service to South African rugby needs to be properly acknowledged by all involved in the game.

It would only be right.

Kick-off at Newlands on Saturday is at 17:10.

Ndungane (second left) celebrates the 2013 Currie Cup final win with Kyle Cooper (left), Louis Ludik (second right) and Lwazi Mvovo (Gallo).

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