Cape Town – Stop-start … that’s probably the best way to describe Coenie Oosthuizen’s remodelled career as an international (and domestic) tighthead prop.
The heavyweight Sharks customer earns only his fifth starting appearance for the Springboks – though it will be his 27th cap, showing how accustomed he is to “impact” duty – after being named by coach Allister Coetzee at No 3 for the Castle Rugby Championship opener against Argentina at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday.
It is a tantalising opportunity for Oosthuizen, as the core position in the scrum has had an unsettled look about it in recent times, and more particularly since the fading into the sunset of now Montpellier-based stalwart Jannie du Plessis.
A call-up for the Potchefstroom-born player to the starting XV has admittedly been made that bit easier by the very recent, probably tournament-long sidelining through a neck injury – no prop likes to hear that, and Oosthuizen has a few times before – of Frans Malherbe.
It was significant problems in that part of the anatomy, after all, that led to Oosthuizen, now 28, being urged to switch to the other side of the scrum after his initial strides as a loose-head in first-class rugby.
In that context, every start he is awarded by his country in the new habitat is a triumph both for his determination and adaptability.
This will be his fourth sampling, in what has been a sporadic tendency, of the green-and-gold No 3 jersey, as opposed to a sub’s number or the No 1 Test shirt he did wear once – and encountered some set-piece difficulty -- against Scotland at Port Elizabeth in June 2014.
Still, in his previous three matches as the starting tighthead, the Boks have won two (France in Paris 2013, Italy in Padova 2014) and lost one – that reverse being 12-6 against Wales in Cardiff at the end of 2014 when then-captain Jean de Villiers suffered his horrendous, multi-pronged leg injury.
Easily the finest of those tighthead outings by Oosthuizen was that first against the French, when many back in South Africa – doubtless including his famously animated, twitchy coach of the time Heyneke Meyer – were nervous about how he would fare in the still-fledgling period since his transition to the “right shoulder” job.
Any concerns were dispelled to an emphatic extent: the Boks prevailed 19-10 to ensure a clean sweep of the European tour, and Big Coenie pulled his considerable weight to such an extent that he earned best Bok player rating (8/10) on this writer’s scorecard for Sport24 at the time.
Up against French loosehead Yannick Forestier, he was rock-solid at scrum-time, where the Boks claimed a heel or two against the head, and shone in general exchanges too, including making some important tackles and reminding that he is more mobile than his 130kg frame might suggest.
Yet for various reasons he has never had any kind of run as first-choice tighthead for South Africa, and in the last couple of seasons they have flitted between Malherbe (when fit) and others like Vincent Koch (now unavailable as an overseas player with only nine caps), Lourens Adriaanse and Ruan Dreyer.
Maybe it is because, truth be told, Oosthuizen still suffers a few traumatic days in scrummaging terms against wily foes at Super Rugby level and some pundits still prefer his brawny qualities to be used for second-half freshening purposes in Test matches.
Nevertheless, coach Coetzee rightly praised the player’s improved consistency levels for the Sharks this year; Oosthuizen also appears in better shape conditioning-wise than he has for some time.
A decent showing against Argentina, who are still capable of some destructive scrums even if their legend in that area belongs more to yesteryear, could see him finally put together a string of starts for the Boks as the Championship progresses.
His direct opponent at the set-piece will be Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, a much-travelled campaigner with 19 starts for the Pumas, even if some are against the likes of Chile, Uruguay and Georgia.
With respect, he does not command quite the fear-factor levels of someone like Marcos Ayerza, a destructive predecessor in the national team who retired at 34 earlier this year on medical advice due to a back injury.
Oosthuizen’s cause is aided by having immediately alongside him in the front row one of the most physically imposing hookers in the international game at present, Malcolm Marx.
In broad terms, Coetzee is probably to be lauded for sticking as closely as possible to the starting troops who saw off France 35-12 at Emirates Airline Park to seal the 3-0 sweep in June.
The backline is almost entirely the same -- the only change there is the return of fit-again scrumhalf Ross Cronje for Francois Hougaard, who deputised for the Lions player in the Johannesburg Test.
In total, 12 of that line-up survive, although one area of notable risk on Saturday is the structure of the loose trio, where Uzair Cassiem gets a crack out of familiar habitat at No 8 and, at least on paper, tearaway Jaco Kriel is again listed as the blindside flank when the open-side role is far more his forte.
Some believe it’s a good shape. I have niggling doubts …
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