Cape Town – The clearing of a major obstacle from the road … that is what has occurred now to the constructive aid of, most particularly, Steven Kitshoff.
The Paul Roos product and Stormers-based loosehead prop, all too often in his Test career so far a member of the Springbok “Bomb Squad” – their impact-geared substitutes – suddenly stands as clear-cut first choice to fill the considerable void left by the retirement from internationals this week of legendary Tendai Mtawarira.
Between them, Mtawarira and Kitshoff have ensured the most enviable of service from that side of a broadly assertive Bok front row throughout 2019, including their ascension to both the World Cup and Rugby Championship titles.
There is simply no let-up for opposition tighthead props, packing down against both at varying times during Test matches, while their ball-carrying and other contributions in general play are also of the premier order.
In recent times, their healthy own jostling for rights to the No 1 jersey has seen stints for both at differing periods as the first choice in the eyes of now outgoing – but staying a key part of the strategic furniture -- head coach Rassie Erasmus.
Come the business end of RWC 2019, however, and the “Beast” had quite firmly re-established himself as the starting option in the berth; he occupied that role throughout the vital, three-game knockout phase on the path to Webb Ellis Cup glory.
Taking to the pitch at the outset has been a dominant hallmark of Mtawarira’s stellar, 117-cap Bok career – he’s done so 102 times (87.17 percent).
In rather stark contrast, Kitshoff’s current 47 caps have included only 12 starts (25.53 percent).
There have been phases during which pundits/observers have felt Kitshoff has deserved better fortune in the pecking order, although few could dispute the special hunger and dynamism that drove Mtawarira’s personal surge toward a first-time lifting of the World Cup.
Whatever the merits of that argument, it is easy to deduce that Kitshoff should quickly start making up for lost time when it comes to being a routine first choice in his position, now that his long-time squad-mate – some seven years his senior, at 34 -- has exited the Bok scene.
He will deserve to be head and shoulders clear, frankly, of any other challengers, just based on current levels of performance and reputation.
Or put it this way: competition is going to be fiercer, at least initially, on the tighthead side, where increasingly impressive incumbent Frans Malherbe has Vincent Koch and (once fully fit again) Trevor Nyakane to keep him from any sense of complacency … in short, a profoundly high-quality field.
Kitshoff, it is probably fair to say, has a wider gap on his immediate rivals for the No 1 jersey, and also amounts to a dream replacement for Mtawarira entering a new four-year cycle to the French-hosted World Cup in 2023 – when he will be 31.
Like Mtawarira, he is generally blessed with excellent levels of fitness and ability to sidestep major injury.
So where will his own main challenges come from?
Within the present, broad Bok squad, Sharks-based heavyweight Thomas du Toit (only 24, remember) shapes up as the potential new “supersub” to Kitshoff on the loosehead side.
He started in that position in the Boks’ last “dirt-tracker” match at the World Cup, against Canada, and it is possible he will seek a more permanent return to contention on his most familiar side of the set-piece.
There have been moves within the Sharks’ camp in recent times to convert him to a tighthead, although it has not been without certain traumas.
There is also still the chance that Nyakane’s proven versatility comes into the picture, although his own shift to tighthead has been notably more successful thus far and, at 30, the effervescent character on the Bulls’ books is likelier to want to stay put now on the No 3 side of the engine room.
In orthodox looseheads, Kitshoff’s major rivals from early next season look like being Bok one-capper Ox Nche, the still relatively youthful livewire in open play who has just said goodbye to the Cheetahs in anticipation of a new career in Durban, the Bulls’ Lizo Gqoboka, plus Dylan Smith (and possibly also Sti Sithole?) of the Lions.
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