Naka Drotske: My heart is with the Cheetahs

Naka Drotske (Getty Images)
Naka Drotske (Getty Images)

Cape Town - His career might not have been as prolific as several of his former Springbok team-mates, but Naka Drotske has no regrets when looking back.

Drostke's accolades speak for themselves and he holds the unique distinction of winning the Currie Cup as a player, captain, team manager and coach with the Free State Cheetahs.

The now 46-year-old also has another major accolade. 

The 1995 Rugby World Cup leaves many Springbok fans tugging at their heart-strings when remembering that Nelson Mandela-inspired Ellis Park final win against the All Blacks.

It was a magical time in South Africa's history and while the spotlight shone bright on the Joel Stransky drop goal and the Francois Pienaar/Madiba celebrations, Drotske was a part of that famous squad. 

Flying under the radar, this small-town boy from Senekal made a two minute cameo in the quarter-final against Samoa in what would be his only appearance at the tournament. 

Drotske came on as a substitute for Kobus Wiese in the 78th minute of that match, playing his part in the team's legacy.

"Regardless of my involvement, to be in that squad was amazing and I'll always remember that," Drotske told Sport24 in an exclusive interview.

"To be with the likes of Francois Pienaar and Tiaan Strauss and all those legends that I look up to and then all of a sudden I was playing with them - it was really amazing and something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Drotske had made his Springbok debut against Argentina in 1993. He was 22 at the time.

A dislocated shoulder kept him sidelined for the entire 1994 season until his 1995 World Cup substitution.

It was only between 1997-1999 that he became a senior member and hooker for the Springboks, but his final curtain call in the green and gold jersey was already beckoning.

Drotske, 28 at the time, made his final appearance for his country at the 1999 World Cup in their bronze winning match against the All Blacks in Wales.

His position in the front row was to be taken by Cheetahs team-mate Charl Marais and then more regularly by former Springbok skipper John Smit.

Drotske had played 26 Tests for the Springboks and believes he was a bit "unlucky" for not playing more.

"But I've got no regrets and there are a lot of great players that retired without ever playing for South Africa so it was a huge honour," he added.

Looking for a new challenge, Drotske found himself in England for three years playing for London Irish.

He made 58 appearances for the English club and saw his side lift up the Powergen Cup trophy (now known as the Anglo-Welsh Cup) at Twickenham.

"You don't think your life is bigger than Bloemfontein so to live in London was amazing and I had some really good years there," said Drotske.

Drotske returned after his stint in 2004 as a seasoned hooker for the Free State Cheetahs and managed to fulfil one of his dreams.

"One of my career highlights was winning the Currie Cup in 2005. We played against a very good Blue Bulls side with a lot of Springboks in it."

After the Currie Cup triumph, Drotske decided to hang up his boots at the age of 34.

However, it didn't take long for the former Springbok to get back into rugby as he was asked to be the team manager of the franchise in 2005 before coaching the side from 2007.

"I was hesitant to take up the role as I didn't expect it. I never planned to go into coaching. The board asked me whether I could coach and I always like a challenge and decided to take it on."

Drotske found his knack and eased in as Cheetahs head coach, but soon realised the disadvantages that came with building and managing a franchise.

"Coaching is a tough job, especially with the Cheetahs where there’s not a lot of money for player budgets so you don't really get continuity where you can keep players and have experience from those who play for five to six years," added Drotske.

"You're always building, but it was an exciting time, I never regret anything and I had a great time."

A huge milestone in Drotske's coaching career came in 2013 when the Bloemfontein side defied all odds and qualified for the Super Rugby playoffs.

"It was a big goal of mine to get into the playoffs of Super Rugby," he said.

"It's a really tough competition, especially for a small union like the Cheetahs, where you never really have experience. But we managed to do that and although we lost against the Brumbies by two points, it was really exciting."

Drotske served Free State Rugby as a player, coach and administrator over a period of two decades.

After eight years as head coach, he announced his retirement from the game.

"It was tough to leave. I played for Free State schools in 1988, played Free State Under-20 and I played 130 games for the Cheetahs," he said.

"My heart will always be with Cheetahs rugby and I've got a lot of great memories. It's a small place so you learn to be with each other and that's one of the ways to succeed is having that culture."

After being involved in rugby since the age of eight, Drotske has ventured into a new business that is in a certain way a lot like sport.

Toptrim manufactures fitness and nutrition products and encourages people to work-out and get into fitness.

"After rugby, you sort of get into a comfort zone where you've trained all your life and you don't want to do it anymore," said Drotske.

"This will help people who're not fit and help those to lose weight all over the world and so it's nice to play a part in some people's lives."

Toptrim is where the public can challenge sporting greats such as former Springbok prop Os du Randt with a 60-day fitness challenge through social media. The challenge is expected to kick off on August 1 this year.

Out of the office, Drotske is a keen golfer and enjoys hitting the fairways every two weeks. When he's not on the golf course, he loves to spend time with his wife of four years, Marzanne, and their four kids.

Drotske is one of the greatest legends in Free State and Cheetahs history, but when asked what he wants to be remembered for, his answer was short and sweet.

"I want to be remembered for being an honest, passionate guy who never gave up and always tried to give my best in whatever I've done."

Images: Gallo

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