Cape Town - For all of the first 18 matches of Steven Kitshoff’s international career, you might have been excused for suspecting he was going to suffer the Springbok fate of a loose-head prop predecessor, Ollie le Roux.
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Le Roux was the larger-than-life, barrelling front-ranker from the Cheetahs and later Sharks who amassed a far from insignificant 54 Test caps ... but only 11 of those (20.37 percent) came as a starter.
His path to regular berths in the Bok run-on XV was cruelly, near-constantly blocked by a certain Os du Randt, the genuinely legendary prop who remains the only South African to boast two World Cup-winning medals - over a period straddling 12 years, which included all of Le Roux’s Test timespan, between 1995 and 2007.
Du Randt was the perfect package in a loose-head: a huge man (almost 135kg), yet surprisingly mobile, with explosive pace off the mark, and a rock-solid scrummager.
Hardly helping Le Roux’s cause was that, albeit not quite in the same league at scrum time, he was a dream presence on a bench because of his ball-carrying abilities and cleaning-out relish against often tiring defences.
That said, the straight-talking, marketable character - an obvious ad front for a major South African burger-specialising restaurant chain - would have loved to have started more Bok matches, and at times would even talk up enthusiastically Du Randt’s potential as a tighthead, as if to finally try to free up the No 1 jersey for a more concerted run in it himself.
But such was life for Big Ollie, so much more accustomed to wearing a jersey numbered in the high teens for South Africa.
He shared, thus, certain key hallmarks with Kitshoff during the pretty lengthy stint between June last year (the latter’s debut against Ireland in Port Elizabeth) and the Bloemfontein Test against Australia late last month when the Somerset West-born competitor was solely a Bok sub for 18 games on the trot.
Is that a reward or a “punishment”?
That’s a bit of a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string argument, I suppose.
But the pro-Kitshoff lobby could also have submitted with some conviction that his starting debut against the might of the All Blacks at Newlands was not before time, given the consistent promise he demonstrated off the splinters.
As things turned out, too, he put in a thunderous display in just about all areas of play, fully cashing in on the belated opportunity from coach Allister Coetzee after long-time No 1 incumbent Tendai Mtawarira pulled out for undisclosed “family reasons”.
Kitshoff showed commendable stamina, too, in putting himself about vigorously for what amounted to some 87 minutes against the world champions (officially 77, though there was that incredible near-10 minutes of continuous play after the halftime siren).
Although the stalwart Mtawarira, record Bok prop holder of 95 caps (and 86 starts, a contrastingly healthy percentage of 90.52), has been playing some resurgent rugby of his own this season, it is clear now that Kitshoff is going to push ever more strongly to eclipse him to the starting berth - naturally a healthy development both individually and in the greater team context.
Made all the wiser by his 34-appearance European stint with Bordeaux, Stormers returnee Kitshoff is healthily inching toward his rugby prime - he is 25 - whereas the 32-year-old Mtawarira has racked up a lot more punishment on his frame and arguably already trundled through the door of “twilight” status.
But the Zimbabwean-born “Beast” will certainly be targeting a third personal World Cup campaign in 2019 (Japan’s maiden hosting of it) as a likely swansong to international rugby; he will be 34 then.
Expect him to return full of vigour for the Bok end-of-year tour shortly, fuelled not only by booming thoughts about that longer-term objective, but also complacency-combatting knowledge of Kitshoff’s stirring first start a few days ago.
That in itself creates an instant selection conundrum for Coetzee and his lieutenants as they chew on their team for the tough opener against Ireland in Dublin on November 11.
One thing is virtually beyond doubt: the immediate future of the Bok loose-head berth is in extremely safe, twin-pronged hands, with both Mtawarira and the on-the-rise Kitshoff standing reasonably head and shoulders above any other comers now for rights to it, even if someone like Sharks behemoth Thomas du Toit (a usefully tender 22) may increasingly have a protesting view on that.
It also seems less and less likely that Kitshoff, so much closer to regular first-choice status after Newlands, will fall more prolonged prey to the Ollie le Roux Test-career drawback ...
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