Cape Town - Scarra Ntubeni has won the Currie Cup twice before and the domestic competition has faded from the spotlight it used to enjoy since then, but that is not getting in the way of the hooker’s motivation to be part of a “special” Western Province campaign.
The experienced WP player has had a promising career interrupted by injury way too often over the past few seasons - most specifically a torn Achilles in 2016 and hamstring problems in 2017 and then into the first half of 2018 - and he has some ground to make up when it comes to the pecking order in his position both nationally and at his union, according to the supersport.com website.
Bongi Mbonambi, recruited from the Bulls two years ago, has now become a Springbok and is firmly ensconced as the WP first choice, while Ramone Samuels, a few line out blemishes aside, was excellent for the Stormers in the recent Super Rugby season when Mbonambi was missing through injury.
Lest it be forgotten, Ntubeni was knocking on the Springbok door himself a couple of seasons ago. In fact, he was twice selected to be part of a Bok squad, but he never got onto the field.
The first occasion was 2013, when Heyneke Meyer included him in his group for the end of year tour of the UK and France.
And then in 2016 he was included in Allister Coetzee’s first 31-man squad only to be released after a few days with the group to play for South Africa A against the England Saxons.
So Ntubeni has SA ‘A’ listed as his highest representative honour on his CV and at the age of 27 it looks like the ship might be close to having sailed when it comes to playing fully fledged international rugby.
But after several seasons where he has been blighted by injury, some of them setbacks lesser men would not have come back from, and no doubt a few occasions when he probably thought his career was over, Ntubeni just gives the impression his pleased to be back on the playing field and getting an extended run for a WP team that has started the Currie Cup with a bang.
You can see his enjoyment in the way he is playing the game, as you can when he talks about the game and the WP quest to win the title for the second year in succession.
His billboard moment on the field was the little overhead backflip pass that looked such a random act that landed safely in the hands of WP’s reserve scrumhalf Paul de Wet in the first half to set up one of WP’s nine tries that helped them bury an Emirates Airlines Park hoodoo against the Golden Lions last weekend.
“I heard him screaming for the ball so I knew that I had to try it,” confessed Ntubeni, “and I was just lucky that the ball landed safely in his hands."
“I would have been in trouble had it not gone to hand,” he added with an impish grin.
Ntubeni made his debut for WP as long ago as 2011 and he was part of the Province side that broke an 11 year Currie Cup drought when an understrength team shocked the Sharks in the 2012 final in Durban. He experienced the disappointment of losing a final when the Sharks returned the favour at Newlands 12 months later, but managed a second Currie Cup winning medal in another Cape Town final in 2014.
The next two weeks will decide whether WP top the log and put them in a strong position to secure what would be Ntubeni’s third Newlands domestic final, and one thing you should be assured of is that he is living every moment of trying to make that a reality.
“This is definitely shaping up as a very special Currie Cup. We have spoken for many years about getting to this point and for me it is nice to get an opportunity again. It really is an awesome team, there are no egos, and the coaches are backing us,” said the East London born hooker.
“We can gain something from our win over the Lions. It was one of the special victories I have experienced as a WP player. While I have been here we haven’t had something like that at Ellis Park. Hopefully we can build on that and just get better from here.”
The injuries that have kept Ntubeni from getting a decent run of games since 2015 have made him a fan of one of the new innovations in the 2018 Currie Cup season - the introduction of rolling subs. Partly because costs have limited Currie Cup teams to seven reserves instead of the usual eight, coaches can now make up to 12 substitutions during a game, with players able to go off for a rest and then come back.
“You can manage your energy. It can help prevent injuries as there is a lot of rugby being played now. If you can manage the bodies it is much better for the players,” said Ntubeni.
“Piggles (WP skipper Chris van Zyl) knew he was going to get a break in the Ellis Park game so he called for an extra effort and then he was able to come back later in the last quarter when his captaincy was necessary. Particularly on the highveld it is nice to have a plan like like that and it is nice to be able to spike certain parts of your game.”
However, Ntubeni doesn’t believe every player necessarily qualifies as a potential rolling sub.
“Everyone is different, so for some players maybe it works, but I know that I personally can’t come off and get cold and then go on again. If I am off I am done. So it depends how players get managed.”
Ntubeni also appears to be a fan of the single round of competition.
“We are on a play-off footing now from the beginning, the pressure is on from the start. In the past you could get off to a slow start, like we tended to do, and then come back into the competition and play your best rugby later. Now you can’t afford to slip up.”
Ntubeni agrees that the ratcheted pressure makes it less likely that WP will lose a game like the one they face on Saturday against Griquas, a side that has periodically shocked the big teams, including Province, in the past. As there aren’t as many games as previously, the players can also keep their focus and produce big efforts more consistently.
“When we went to Johannesburg our plan was to dominate up front, and there was a big emphasis on the work-rate of the forwards. The tries scored by the backline was very pleasing for the forward pack. We need to keep that going this week and we need to get even better,” he said.
The WP team for the Griquas game on Saturday night will be named on Thursday.