Springboks

Ray of light: Bok prop stocks swell

2018-05-03 12:01
Vincent Koch (Getty Images)

Cape Town – It might be just a little premature yet to speak of an approaching golden era in the berth.

But South African rugby, embattled on so many other fronts, does look increasingly well geared for the next few years – and at least two World Cup cycles – in one pivotal department: the stock of props.

New Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus and his assistants have better reason to feel assured, you would think, in this than many other positions as they prepare with mounting intensity for the June internationals and beyond.

In terms of ability to merge quality with depth, as well as command a suitable blend between youth and experience, the uniquely barrel-chested, bull-necked species arguably represent the most gratifying aspect of the collective arsenal available to the brains trust.

It applies in roughly equal measure to both sides of the scrum, too.

Just as pleasingly, given how transformation will naturally remain a big role-player on the SA rugby landscape, several of the pedigreed props likely to be there or thereabouts for green-and-gold honours for some time to come are black.

That in itself seems an especially far cry, when you weigh up the massive differences between the berths, from the days when “two black wings” was the cynical response – though it was often enough a glaring structural hallmark in teams not that long ago - over the painstaking normalisation process in the SA game since the dismantling of apartheid.

Black front-rankers are bulldozing daft stereotypes, and with some glee.

I would argue, gazing ahead to the respective World Cups of 2019 (Japan) and 2023 (France), that South African options at prop, especially if all candidates were blissfully free of injury, are as good as or better than any equivalent crop contemplated for a similar half-dozen-year period since our belated introduction to RWC activity in 1995.

To illustrate the point, allow me to break down the exercise into three separate categories: looseheads, tightheads, and then a further department for props who may yet – though front-row purists more often than not frown on versatility – offer Test possibilities on either side of the engine room.

Looseheads

At least in the period up to and including RWC 2019, the Springboks seem to have a fairly straightforward “top two” and admirably stable cupboard for the loosehead chore … a tight battle, too, featuring veteran Tendai Mtawarira and a Steven Kitshoff only just coming into his prime at 26.

Even if the yeoman Sharks servant stays a whisker in front in the pecking order (remember that he has a tantalising 98 caps), frequent Bok impact man Kitshoff will know that if he plays his cards right, he should have graduated to first choice anyway for the subsequent RWC cycle to France 2023.

Next year’s, of course, is highly likely to be the World Cup - and more general - Bok swansong for the “Beast”, who was playing with commendable appetite in Super Rugby before his injury-enforced curtailment a few weeks ago. He is still so seldom noticeably out-grappled at scrum-time, isn’t he?

But then Kitshoff’s time – if not before – should truly come. Certainly it will take a really good new ‘un to prevent him from monopolising the Bok No 1 jersey from 2020 to 2023, at least.

It is only because he was introduced to first-class rugby at extraordinarily youthful 18 that Kitshoff - a really strong scrumming force when he puts his mind to it, and destructive carrier - seems such a seasoned element for the Stormers/WP.

Having already sampled a well-paid stint abroad with Bordeaux, Kitshoff may well, and gratifyingly, stay put now on SA soil for some years … until a possible twilight, “top-up” stint in Europe again in the much more distant future?

But SA loosehead resources don’t end with Mtawarira and Kitshoff.

After weeks of being largely cooped up on the bench, the Bulls’ Lizo Gqoboka suddenly found fate intervening in his favour when incumbent No 1 Pierre Schoeman (soon departing for northern climes anyway) copped a six-week ban for biting.

Gqoboka, a famously late convert to rugby from soccer and athletics, was a revelation in all areas on his start against the respected Highlanders last Saturday, to the extent that the 28-year-old – another quite feasibly in the Bok mix up to 2023, as best props tend to age like a fine cabernet sauvignon, remember – could creep rapidly up the SA pecking order.

But if Erasmus and company would rather see a younger loosehead or two come to the fore behind the likely main pair, then Ox Nche of the Cheetahs (22) and the Lions’ Dylan Smith (24) offer some security as rookies whose curves should only shift northward.

Neither is an orthodox powerhouse in weight terms, but Nche in particular is a serious crowd-pleaser for impact purposes – to say his tackles are firm is a rank understatement – and if he can develop his set-piece prowess he could well shift beyond his current SA ‘A’ status.

Mind you, he will desperately need a break after an unusually murderous last year or more, given the Cheetahs’ novel, altered circumstances in global tournaments.

Tightheads

As if in a timely step for this Sport24 exercise (!), Vincent Koch returned from several weeks of injury-enforced absence - ankle problems - for Saracens in the English Premiership at the weekend, reportedly contributing a successful hour as a starter to their 51-14 thrashing of London Irish which teed up a home semi-final for his club.

Former Stormers player Koch is a massive talent, highly regarded in the grinding world of UK/European forward play and probably an even wiser customer now since leaving Newlands.

Little wonder that Erasmus has apparently identified the 28-year-old as a key presence in his plans for this year and beyond.

Koch already sports nine caps for the Boks, but it remains quite feasible that his most profound service to the cause is yet to come.

Meanwhile the gradual, encouraging development of considerably younger Wilco Louw, 23, continues in Cape Town; remember that he is the incumbent Test tighthead and was looking genuinely accomplished there toward year’s end.

Louw just looks like a traditional, ultra-specialist No 3 with his build and scrumming style, doesn’t he?

There should be at least three World Cups in him for South Africa.

But don’t yet write off his Stormers squad-mate Frans Malherbe, a little worryingly jinxed by significant injuries but on the comeback right now and also with plenty of gas left in the tank (at 27) to swell his 17 Bok caps if he can get back into a regular playing groove.

The same applies to that human piledriver Coenie Oosthuizen up the coast in Durban.

For all the initial trepidation and cynicism about his medically-forced switch to the “wrong” side of the scrum, he was just beginning to look as though he had conquered most technical demons when he tore knee ligaments early in the Test against Ireland in Dublin on the end-of-year tour.

He should be back in domestic action after Super Rugby has run its course, and far from out of the picture at international level.

Psst, what about Marcel van der Merwe? Another significant physical specimen, the ex-Bulls and Cheetahs man last played for the Boks in 2015 but is still only 27, and he will have gained enormous wisdom in the rough-and-tumble world of the French Top 14 with Toulon.

Utility props

The Sharks’ 136-kilogram true physical juggernaut, Thomas du Toit, turns a still relatively infant 23 on Saturday – when his franchise entertains the Highlanders. That is simply a reminder of the years ahead for the “Tank Engine” to establish himself as an icon of the game at the loftiest levels.

Du Toit has been making an increasingly brave fist of life on the tighthead side this season, a situation made highly necessary by the long-term absence of Oosthuizen (ironically another who began front-row life much more accustomed to a No 1 jersey).

Just of late, he seems to be “getting it” to a much more profound degree at scrum-time, which is encouraging. (He is, by own recent admission, a very keen student, and not overly perturbed by the occasional skyward popping at the set-piece.)

That said, there have still been too many problematic games in technical scrummaging terms – nobody disputes his ball-carrying and clean-out lethalness – for him yet to be deemed a frontline Bok candidate for tighthead.

When the Test call one day comes, as it probably will, Du Toit may find himself asked to do duty at his old loosehead post … or be an attractive “benchman” simply because of the cover he offers at both one and three.

Speaking of that phenomenon, the same could apply to Trevor Nyakane, a revitalised and seemingly much more durable front-ranker for the Bulls this season.

The popular character has also been gradually coming to terms with the cares of tighthead in Super Rugby and, like Du Toit, oozes talent … and has added a string to his bow this year by winning a few key turnovers in general play.

Although 28, Nyakane is playing with the relish of a 22-year-old again, and there are arguably enough years left in his engine for him to get to (or past) 50 caps for his country; he currently has 37, albeit overwhelmingly as a substitute.

But which side? Like it or not, he could remain an appealing cover-both-bases sort of factor for the broad Bok squad … which is still better than a kick in the teeth. 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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