Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers should be in a situation, at the key berth of tighthead prop, which turns almost all other teams in Super Rugby 2018 – whether local or further afield -- pea green with envy.
Should be, alas.
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To have on their books simultaneously two proven, international-class No 3s in the shape of rising young star Wilco Louw plus the more experienced Frans Malherbe is exactly what the proverbial doctor would order.
In an ideal world, head coach Robbie Fleck would have begun the campaign knowing that he could very safely and importantly rotate his two prize assets in the scrum-anchoring spot, combating over-use in either case and the associated risk of injury during the notoriously gruelling competition.
Just think: 55 minutes of pure Louw power at scrum-time from the outset, hypothetically, and then a no-mercy closing 25 from Malherbe … and just as comfortably the other way around, really.
But already that prospect has been cruelly, decisively dashed … at least for what could be a significant period of time.
I had already begun to wonder about the often injury-jinxed Malherbe’s readiness for the 2018 haul before the festive season, considering his absence for generous tracts of the prior rugby year with a neck problem.
When I approached the WP Rugby media department then over whether the 17-cap Springbok was back in training, I was cagily advised to wait for resumption of those squad activities early in the new year for an answer.
But it then came indirectly anyway, buried in a broader media release from Newlands a few days ago, as we learned from the politburo -- again with a certain, deliberate vagueness perhaps – that the big front-ranker is expected back “later in the season”.
Most would agree that’s a pretty open-ended statement: just how soon is “later”?
Certainly it left a strong impression that Malherbe is a no-go for the Stormers’ main, three-match overseas leg which comes unusually early – from round two for them – and presumably a good many games thereafter, too.
Remember that the player, who has had neck-related issues before, broke down as far back as June last year, so the best thing to hope for is that he is simply being rehabbed very conservatively to ensure full recovery.
But it does mean that the Stormers may be obliged to make rather more prolific use of Louw – remember his imperious, destructive showing in the Currie Cup final against the Sharks? – than they would like for several months of the Super Rugby slog, and that is also hardly ideal from a Bok point of view; he will be a vital figure in the bid to topple England during June.
The problem is that the Stormers, minus Malherbe, have desperately little seasoned back-up to Louw at tighthead, despite the burgeoning talents of someone like the 20-year-old Carlu Sadie; they would be in some trouble if, perish the thought, Louw suddenly joined Malherbe on the crocked list.
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Speaking of trouble, coastal rivals the Sharks also had bleak news for their supporters in a tighthead context recently when it was confirmed that big Coenie Oosthuizen, who means a lot to a pack in more than just scrum-time terms, is highly likely to miss the whole Super Rugby season.
Oosthuizen had finally been settling admirably -- at all levels -- into duties on his previously “wrong” side of the scrum in 2017, until he tore cruciate ligaments in a knee against Ireland on the Bok end-of-year tour.
It was a fate he hardly deserved considering the patient, dedicated way he had made the tricky switch.
So it’s a gaping void at No 3 for the Sharks who, as things stand, will probably have to make do with honest, hard-grafting but far from world-beating veteran journeyman Ross Geldenhuys as their first choice in the position unless hefty loosehead Thomas du Toit’s versatility credentials are called upon … again.
They may regret having offloaded another Bok tighthead, Lourens Adriaanse, to Pau in France.
The Lions, South Africa’s best team for the last two years and losing finalists each time, sit in a reasonably similar position to the Sharks at tighthead: there are potentially huge problems if Ruan Dreyer is laid low, as their prop cupboard also looks rather healthier on the loosehead side of the boiler room.
You could feasibly say they have still not properly recovered, depth-wise at tighthead, from the career-ending neck injury in 2016 to luckless Julian Redelinghuys …
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