Cape Town - Earlier this year, Lizo Gqoboka was hoping to make a big enough impression for the Bulls to be included in the Springbok squad for the British & Irish Lions series.
After all, following the retirement of Tendai Mtawarira, Gqoboka had a good shot at being an understudy to Steven Kitshoff.
The Bulls front-ranker had just missed out on the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, with Mtawarira and Kitshoff the looseheads preferred, with Trevor Nyakane’s ability to play on both sides of the front row meant that a third loosehead was not required.
And when Nyakane got injured against the All Blacks, Thomas du Toit was called up to Japan for the same versatility reasons.
But in 2021, Ox Nche’s form at the Sharks, and yet another injury, meant that Gqoboka missed out on selection for the Lions series.
Having battled with a calf issue in 2020, it was an ankle problem sustained in a Rainbow Cup match against the Lions of Johannesburg in May that probably cost him a spot in the Bok squad.
Going into 2022, the 31-year-old hopes that all the injuries are now behind him once and for all.
“In terms of rugby (in 2021), not too good, because I haven’t even played six games in a row. It’s always been an injury (holding me back), which was frustrating. But those are the things I have no control over – every time I go on the field, I want to give my best, and don’t want to think about injuries and hiding on the field,” Gqoboka said.
“So, I’ve learnt a lot, though, off the field ... watching the guys play and the way the coaches coach – the changes, the new guys coming in from other unions and overseas. Just being in the team has taught me a lot, because here, even if you are injured, you still go to the meetings.
“You can go on the field and just be in the team – you don’t feel like you are on the outside. You are always involved. Hopefully it’s a thing of the past.
“Like I said, it’s something you don’t plan and it’s out of your control. We are quite professional in the sense that we have prehab – injury prevention programmes here at the Bulls.
“But sometimes, injuries still happen. It’s not something that I put in my mind. I just go out there and give my best, and make more memories with my teammates. That’s what I try to focus on, and improve my skills and my fitness every day.”
Gqoboka enjoyed an encouraging United Rugby Championship tour to Europe a few months ago, and despite the Bulls battling to adjust to the intensity of the Irish teams in particular, their scrum had some strong moments.
In a surprise by coach Jake White in the final match of the year against the Sharks, though, Gqoboka was used as a tighthead substitute, after first-choice No 3 Mornay Smith and experienced back-up Jacques van Rooyen were unavailable.
Rookie Robert Hunt started at tighthead at Kings Park and conceded a number of penalties on a difficult night for him, and Gqoboka didn’t look too comfortable on the right-hand side of the front row either.
But White said that Gqoboka started his provincial career as a tighthead at Eastern Province, and he hopes that the man from Tabankulu in the Eastern Cape can become a serious option to operate in both prop positions going forward – especially with Nyakane having now joined French club Racing 92.
Gqoboka felt that the Bulls deserved to earn more scrum penalties from European referees on their United Rugby Championship tour, and believes that there needs to be greater dialogue with the match officials to gain the set-piece rewards.
On a personal level, though, making the Bok squad for the 2023 World Cup in France is still an objective for Gqoboka.
Considering the strength in depth in Jacques Nienaber’s group, though, the Bulls prop will have to reach the same level of form that earned him two Test caps in 2019 to have a chance.
“Ja, it (playing for the Boks) definitely is (a goal).
“I must say, the guys that are there at the moment are really doing well, and deserve to be there,” Gqoboka said.
“For me personally, it is just being able to control what I can, which is working hard, making sure that I’m in good shape, hopefully no injuries … Sacrifice more, learn the game more, and be better in every area of my game. That is what I can control, and play good rugby for the Bulls.
“If I get chosen, then it would be a great thing.
“I want to represent my country, like every other player. But my focus is just on continuous improvement, and hopefully my time will come.”