Boks: Tighthead can get tourney foothold

Frans Malherbe (Gallo)
Frans Malherbe (Gallo)

Cape Town – It seems a neck-and-neck race for rights to the important, spinal role of Springbok scrum anchorman.

The two favourites to start in the tighthead prop berth for game one of the Rugby Championship against Argentina in Durban on Saturday should be Frans Malherbe - the incumbent if the dead-rubber third Test against England in June is used as a yardstick - and his Stormers franchise-mate Wilco Louw.

At this stage, and although Bok coach Rassie Erasmus is his own man in selection terms and not averse to curveballs anywhere on the park, third option and versatile figure Thomas du Toit remains likeliest provider of impact off the bench.

Given the mobility that belies his hefty, 135kg bulk, the 23-year-old remains an appealing “half-hour” man for his devastating ball-carrying qualities and crunching hits.

But the fact that he is also still painstakingly learning his technical trade - albeit encouragingly - on what used to be branded his wrong side of the set-piece also suggests that Erasmus will continue with his four-Test habit thus far in 2018 of using Du Toit as a substitute.

Still, Kings Park is his home ground, so a first-time start cannot entirely be ruled out for the “Tank Engine” this weekend; the Bok match-day team is to be named on Thursday.

Bear in mind that Argentina are no longer the scrummaging force of several years ago, as borne out by the modest scrum performance of the Jaguares (effectively also the national side) in Super Rugby this year – they were outside of the top 10 statistically for success rate in the department.

A likelier scenario, however, remains the Boks beginning the Test with a genuine, seasoned specialist at No 3 - so either of Malherbe or Louw.

And that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, really, unless the head coach has his eyes more firmly set than we expect on one particular individual as his intended staple figure at tighthead.

Whoever he opts for, that player simultaneously has an attractive opportunity to nail it down for much of the remainder of the competition, as South Africa will be cautiously anticipating collective dominance at scrum-time in both, back-to-back clashes with the Pumas at the front of their roster.

At tighthead specifically, the Boks looked stable more than spectacular over the course of their quartet of internationals in June, with more of their front-row exploits (especially by the time the main, three-game series business against England came along) attributed to the destructive qualities of either veteran Tendai Mtawarira or Steven Kitshoff on the loosehead side.

Louw began the dubious-value, once-off Test against Wales (22-20 loss) in Washington DC and then also the first clash (dramatic 42-39 win) against the English in Johannesburg.

But he could not match, on either occasion, the notable strides he made when blooded to Test rugby toward the end of last year.

Acknowledging that the 24-year-old, low-centre-of-gravity powerhouse had been overplayed in the often demoralising - for reasons both pure rugby-related and off-field - Super Rugby season for the Stormers, Erasmus pulled him right out of the Test picture for the remaining two encounters.

Subsequently, Louw has had the luxury of putting in a lot of hopefully constructive, out-of-competition time into conditioning and regaining of mental lustre.

He last started a rugby game of any kind as far back as June 30, when the fading Stormers lost to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, so he ought to be closer again to restoring the pleasing standards he brought as Bok tighthead in late 2017.

But if Louw clearly suffered from too much rugby until a few weeks back, his Newlands-based colleague Malherbe, ironically, returned from long-term injury to very belatedly, and mercifully, be in a position to share high-calibre No 3 duties with him for the Capetonians as their Super Rugby challenge petered out.

So of late he has been in the opposite position to Louw: ring-rusty, and with only limited opportunities (the Stormers were idle during Super Rugby’s three-week playoffs phase) to get back to best sharpness.

Certainly Malherbe still looked short of his known, best personal levels in the thumping final-Test reverse to England in heavy conditions at Newlands - Du Toit replaced him after 44 minutes - and could have done with rather more competitive game-time subsequently.

But he is the most experienced of the current trio of Bok tighthead options, with 19 caps stretching back to 2013, and at 27 may still only be nearing maximum potential in a berth where they say maturity runs parallel with the patient progress of a fine red wine in the cellar …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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