Cape Town - His body language seems to be among the demurest of the RWC 2019 Springbok squad members ... and he doesn’t occupy a traditionally “poster figure” position in a rugby team, either.
But in his unassuming way, the burly frame of Frans Malherbe has been more influential than some may appreciate in the Boks’ march to the showpiece against England at Yokohama on Saturday (11:00 SA time).
The 28-year-old Stormers tighthead prop has been a dominant figure much of the time in his critical scrum anchoring role at the tournament, which has gone plentiful way to explaining the collective excellence of the Bok set-piece against all foes they’ve encountered so far.
Possibly now facing the best rival boiler-room unit they’ll encounter yet in game seven - the pressure-cooker final - the South African pack should nevertheless feel that, at very worst, they ought to hold their own in the department against the English.
Malherbe’s own form has been mounting encouragingly with every outing he’s had, featuring starts against all of New Zealand, Italy, Japan and Wales and a gallop off the bench against Canada.
Apart from his consistent solidity with that “right shoulder” requirement at scrum time, Malherbe has been getting about the park with increasing vigour and commitment as well, making his yeoman share of tackles, and putting plenty of grunt into rolling mauls.
That he has lifted the bar in recent weeks on his personal game has been especially gratifying for the Boks, given the disappointment of losing Trevor Nyakane, who had been putting enormous heat on Malherbe for rights to the first-choice status at No 3, to RWC-ending injury in the pool opener against New Zealand.
Instead of succumbing to complacency as a result, Malherbe seems to have only redoubled, in Nyakane’s absence, his quest to remind people why he has long been coach Rassie Erasmus’s preferential pick in the berth.
Not long before the start of the World Cup, after all, Bulls favourite Nyakane had made a determined push - both figuratively and more literally, in a scrumming sense - for the premier mantle, having had a near-sensational outing as starter in the Rugby Championship-clinching 46-13 away victory over Argentina.
Apart from destructive set-piece play, his 15 recorded tackles that day were reverently described as “insane” by RWC 2007-winning captain John Smit.
So Nyakane was fast heading toward flavour of the month ... or so it seemed.
Instead, Malherbe, who often looks as if he wouldn’t be too perturbed if a grenade went off in one of his hands, has determinedly gone about re-cementing his spot.
Helping that drive, too, has been the assertiveness of new tighthead “supersub” Vincent Koch - not too long ago a Newlands-based team-mate of Malherbe’s in Super Rugby - who was outstanding in just over half and hour’s involvement in the narrow semi-final victory over Wales.
It simply ensured unerring Bok standards from start to finish at tighthead, a far from inconsequential factor in the nail-chewing 19-16 outcome.
Same service again on Saturday, and it will stand the underdog Boks in suitable stead for an upset over Eddie Jones’s much-feted England.
Malherbe goes into immediate battle with Mako Vunipola, the English loose-head who he last got to grips with in the Boks’ series-clinching 23-12 win in the second Test at Bloemfontein last season.
They are a hard-to-separate physical match, with Malherbe’s 125kg and 1.90m countered by Vunipola’s 122kg and 1.80m, even if the latter boasts greater international nous, perhaps, with 63 appearances to Malherbe’s 37.
That said, Malherbe’s progress at Test level a few years ago was curtailed by the ongoing presence of stalwart Jannie du Plessis, often prioritised at No 3 by Heyneke Meyer during his four-year tenure ... although the more youthful Malherbe did leapfrog the gnarly Sharks anchorman during the last World Cup in 2015, finally being preferred toward the key business end.
It was during that tournament that Malherbe, in a flashpoint hugely out of character if there had been any merit in it, was accused of biting in the 64-0 London romp against the United States.
A British tabloid published a supposedly “damning” image of Malherbe sinking his teeth into the shoulder of an American lock, although he was cleared within a day by World Rugby, who called the picture misleading and not backed up by video evidence.
The “bite” from Malherbe during RWC 2019, four years on, has been entirely of the constructive kind so far ...
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Owen Farrell (captain), 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Tom Curry, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Substitutes: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Dan Cole, 19 George Kruis, 20 Mark Wilson, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Jonathan Joseph
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn
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