Springboks

Malherbe’s chance for Bok ‘relaunch’

2018-06-14 18:00
Frans Malherbe (Gallo)

Cape Town - Some three years ago, Frans Malherbe seemed the next big thing, and not just physically, in Springbok tighthead props.

Instead he has endured varying periods of mostly injury-related frustration in the subsequent period.

So when he runs on for the Springboks as starting No 3 against England in the second Test at Bloemfontein on Saturday, it is really his opportunity to wipe the slate clean and put himself squarely back in Bok plans for the World Cup next year.

It was one cycle back, at RWC 2015, after all, that we witnessed what turned out to be largely a false dawn from him.

Increasingly at that tournament, the then 24-year-old heaped massive pressure on veteran tighthead incumbent Jannie du Plessis for first-choice status.

Finally, he wooed the head coach of the time, Heyneke Meyer, into acknowledging that his significantly greater workload and mobility - not to mention emerging credentials at the set-piece - warranted starts ahead of the older of the two Du Plessis front-row brothers.

Malherbe got his chance to begin regularly curtailing the qualified doctor to the “splinters” in the closing group fixture against the United States at London’s Olympic Stadium … a game the Boks won 64-0 to confirm an admirable spell of renewed zest after that horror start to the tournament against Japan in Brighton.

He then kept Du Plessis second in the pecking order for the remainder of the event, including victories over Wales in a quarter-final and Argentina in the bronze playoff, the lone hiccup in the sequence being the very tight 20-18 semi-final loss to the All Blacks.

But if that World Cup appeared to establish Malherbe as premier man in the anchoring role at scrum-time, things sadly didn’t go quite to plan.

He has sat out major portions of rugby seasons since, including most recently as he recovered, over torturous months, from what is perhaps a prop forward’s biggest curse - a serious neck injury.

Those setbacks at what should have been “cream” periods of his general rugby career go a long way to explaining why the 125kg unit who hails from the Cape winelands has only added a further five to his total tally of 17 Test caps since RWC 2015 in the UK.

In his absence, and mostly during the turbulent Allister Coetzee tenure as coach, the Boks have fielded several others in the tighthead berth, including Julian Redelinghuys (since forced into premature retirement), Coenie Oosthuizen, Vincent Koch, Ruan Dreyer and Wilco Louw.

But incumbent mastermind Rassie Erasmus acknowledged earlier this week that Louw (Malherbe’s younger Stormers colleague) is suffering from fatigue, considering how he has largely carried the Super Rugby can this season; Malherbe only re-entered the radar with the Stormers’ playoffs aspirations already largely in tatters.

In an ideal world, the pair would have been deftly rotated during the campaign by Robbie Fleck, keeping both suitably fresh and on their toes, but the laboured return to full fitness by the latter wreaked havoc with that intended, attractive goal.

Louw is now - perhaps wisely, and with a chance to rest and undertake a bit of renewed conditioning - omitted entirely from the Bok match-day mix, with Sharks behemoth Thomas du Toit still tasked with adding oomph off the bench at some point.

The “Tank Engine” will doubtless need to do that, perhaps from notably early in the second half, as Malherbe is about as short of high-level rugby as hooker Bongi Mbonambi was before the Johannesburg Test.

But the tenacious player put aside that drawback to deliver a gutsy, beavering performance in the No 2 shirt, and Malherbe will hopefully take a leaf from that book - smack alongside Mbonambi, after all - in Bloemfontein.

The only other change to the starting XV revealed by Erasmus on Thursday sees versatile Pieter-Steph du Toit replace Jean-Luc du Preez at blindside flank.

Du Preez may consider himself a tad unlucky, but the more street-smart Du Toit (that’s not the worst attribute for a possibly series-deciding match) is a gifted rugby player, regardless of his specific positional station, so there should really be no skin off the Sharks rookie’s nose.

The 22-year-old’s chance will come again, and he may even get an opportunity to impress anew off the bench this weekend.

Du Preez was moderate, you might say, in the pulsating first-Test victory at Emirates Airline Park, and perhaps Erasmus was a making a key, wider statement by demoting him to the reserves.

After all, in the “Toetie” period, one of his main shortcomings was too often rewarding relative mediocrity in performance with ongoing selection.

Erasmus could well be saying that more outright excellence is far more the quality he seeks, from one week to the next …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  rassie erasmus  |  frans malherbe  |  rugby
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