Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - In the closing one of a six-part examination of the South African teams’ resources for Super Rugby 2018, Sport24 studies the various props and hookers … also providing a score out of 10 in each instance for expected level of health in the department.
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The back threes
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The centres
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The nines and tens
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The loosies
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The locks
The scrum has been something an Achilles heel for the Bulls for many years, even stretching into the trophy-hogging glory days under Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke in the late 2000s.
Is there any special reason to believe the problem is emphatically solved? You suspect not.
The Loftus side still struggle for a consistently dominating character in the core position of tighthead prop, for example, and may have to task that utility enigma Trevor Nyakane with doing the job again if an experienced customer is sought.
That said, snapping up young Frans van Wyk (22 years old, 125kg-plus) from Western Province wasn’t the worst business they will ever do, and perhaps he will provide salvation.
It looks a bit more respectable on the loosehead side, with barrel-chested Pierre Schoeman, still only 23 and entering his third season at this level, coming along nicely now and Lizo Gqokoba sporting enormous potential even as his own best front-row days hopefully also still lie ahead; he will be a good impact man but presumably strive for more than that.
Veteran former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss, at 32, is expected to do a lot of mentoring in Pretoria these days, but he is also too good not to stay their main option at hooker, you would think, even if Edgar Marutlulle and Jaco Visagie provide fairly reassuring depth at No 2.
With so many high-calibre locks on the Bulls’ books, the front three should always enjoy healthy scrum thrust from just behind them.
Front row pool of talent rating: 6/10
If occasional Bok tighthead Ruan Dreyer can sort out the technical problems at scrum-time that occasionally see him become a penalty liability, the Lions’ set-piece as a whole will be so much the better for it.
He remains their most logical, frontline choice for the No 3 jersey, where depth has been thin in Johannesburg ever since the unfortunate, career-wrecking neck injury to popular Julian Redelinghuys.
Still, vastly-travelled Jacobie Adriaanse shifting down the highway from Pretoria means there is decent enough back-up in the specialist berth this year.
Big Jacques van Rooyen is also capable of switching to the other side of the boiler room, but he will probably prefer to challenge very strongly for premier rights to the loosehead position, where the return of young Dylan Smith from a virtual write-off 2017 (through injury) is a gratifying development at Emirates Airline Park.
Corne Fourie also bolsters the stocks at No 1 with his pretty weighty experience.
Of course the jewel in the Lions’ front row crown is strapping hooker Malcolm Marx, one of the global sensations of 2017 when not too many of those came from our shores.
The undisputed kingpin of the No 2 jersey, who they must be cautious not to over-play, he also has solid back-up in that loyal Jo’burger Robbie Coetzee; he has been with the Lions since 2013.
Front row pool of talent rating: 7/10
It really is a savage blow that behemoth Coenie Oosthuizen, just when he was looking the real deal as a converted tighthead after a few years of patient learning, is almost certainly side-lined for the entire Sharks campaign.
Not only was his scrumming coming on in leaps and bounds, but his ball-carrying and monster-hitting abilities will be badly missed as well.
That’s why the Durban side earn no more than a 6.5 rating in their front row stocks here; the No 3 jersey is a considerably thorny issue.
Leading options are slightly long-in-the-tooth specialist Ross Geldenhuys, a willing worker who returned to SA from a stint with the Highlanders (2015-16) a much better player, and Thomas “Tank Engine” du Toit.
The last-named player, like Oosthuizen, is at least a significant slab of humanity, even if there is a near perpetual ding-dong around whether this more comfortable loose-head really is transferable to the awkward side of the scrum.
Still, at 22 the sky’s still the limit for this 136kg talent.
Another youngster, Western Cape-educated John-Hubert Meyer, can pack down on both sides if necessary.
Bok stalwart Tendai Mtawarira is still around – his 13th season at Kings Park – and as long as he stays fit and fresh, the No 1 shirt is in very safe hands.
There is a comfortable, settled feel to the Sharks’ arsenal at hooker, where Franco Marais ought to have the inside lane but be pursued quite lustily by both Chiliboy Ralepelle and Akker van der Merwe; the “Angry Warthog” embarks on his first Super Rugby season in Durban after his mid-year switch from the Big Smoke, initially for Currie Cup purposes, in 2017.
Front row pool of talent rating: 6.5/10
A few weeks ago, the Stormers might’ve been set to score exceptionally big in this category.
But then it emerged that Frans Malherbe, the other half of the dream duo on their books at critical tighthead prop, is still in painstaking rehab from a neck injury, whilst the outstanding prospect Wilco Louw - already having announced himself in Test rugby last season – has been walking a bit of a tightrope for injury-related reasons himself.
Happily, his hip problem appears to have cleared up in time for the start of the campaign, but until Malherbe is back – and it could be several rounds yet – there is a major shortfall in proven back-up to powerhouse Louw. (Carlu Sadie is a rising gem, but still an untried “kid” at this demanding tier of rugby.)
Nevertheless, the loosehead side is superbly stocked: Capetonians will rejoice at burly Steven Kitshoff, 26 and nearing his rugby prime, resuming his Super Rugby career at Newlands after that Bordeaux stint, and JC Janse van Rensburg is his likely “impact” deputy.
Remember that towards the end of the victorious 2017 Currie Cup for WP, this former Lions stalwart was producing some destructive scrumming displays. Similarly, Ali Vermaak (fit again soon) is another capable of forceful showings when the mood grabs him.
The hooker area will take on a more rounded look when – or maybe we should say “if”? – the horribly luckless but gifted Scarra Ntubeni is able to bolster the department after a dreadful run of serious injuries; he always shows fine bounce-back character, mind.
In the meantime, first-choice and Bok-capped Bongi Mbonambi probably gets main support off the bench from Ramone Samuels, lively and a keen poacher in general play but prone to a very wonky radar at line-out time.
If it weren’t for the ongoing question marks around Malherbe and Ntubeni, the Stormers would register a rosier number than the still-decent one you see below …
Front row pool of talent rating: 7/10
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing