Cape Town – It
might be just a little premature yet to speak of an approaching golden era in
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.
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.
in roughly equal measure to both sides of the scrum, too.
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.
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.
front-rankers are bulldozing daft stereotypes, and with some glee.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
loosehead resources don’t end with Mtawarira and Kitshoff.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
wonder that Erasmus has apparently identified the 28-year-old as a key presence
in his plans for this year and beyond.
sports nine caps for the Boks, but it remains quite feasible that his most
profound service to the cause is yet to come.
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?
be at least three World Cups in him for South Africa.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
that phenomenon, the same could apply to Trevor Nyakane, a revitalised and
seemingly much more durable front-ranker for the Bulls this season.
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.
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.
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
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