Cape Town – It might seem reasonably logical to suggest that Stormers anchorman Frans Malherbe is finally set for a clear run as Springbok tighthead prop.
Of the still active, overseas-based seasoned Springboks, long-time No 3-wearer Jannie du Plessis is among the least likely now to add any further to his collection of 70 caps; he was an obstacle to regular starts by Malherbe for two or three years.
The Bethlehem-born doctor, who represents Montpellier, would be almost 37 by the time the next World Cup comes along in 2019, so has no significant further long-term prospects and might only earn an outside-chance, renewed call-up if the Boks suddenly succumb to a widespread injury crisis in the specialist berth.
Right now, the future appears to lie quite appealingly in the hands of Malherbe, who remains young in front-ranker terms at just over 25 and quite possibly with premier years still in front of him.
The Paarl-born strongman has made 12 Bok appearances since 2013, but only half of them in the initial XV.
By the advanced stages of RWC 2015, nevertheless, he had finally convinced the national coach at the time, Heyneke Meyer, of his superior qualities to the ageing Du Plessis and he became the first-choice tighthead for four matches on the trot – victories over the USA, Wales and Argentina with one rather key blip in between in the shape of semi-final defeat to eventual champions New Zealand.
New Bok coach Allister Coetzee, who is well aware of Malherbe’s qualities through his prior tenure at Newlands – the same applies to scrummaging guru Matthew Proudfoot – is unlikely to disturb continuity in that department when he names his team for the first Test against Ireland next Saturday at Malherbe’s home ground.
The Stormers co-captain has been a bastion of stability at No 3 even as the franchise’s scrum has lost a bit of its lustre this year as they have struggled to adjust to the departure of loosehead Steven Kitshoff to France and more recently an injury to the street-wise JC Janse van Rensburg.
Malherbe also contributes consistently well on the tackling front, which is an area where Du Plessis often came in for harsh scrutiny, either for specific lapses or general lack of industry at times.
So with Big Jannie out of the way, the time has come for Malherbe to truly prosper for South Africa, and only rack up a further mountain of caps in the gradual lead-up to Japan 2019.
Or has it?
It is a healthy development, more than anything, that Coetzee named another far from veteran customer as additional out-and-out tighthead option in his squad recently – the Lions’ 26-year-old Julian Redelinghuys.
Aficionados of the scrumming trade would have had little reason to quibble over the selection of either man … and my prediction is that they will be good for each other because of the very likely, healthy competition they will generate.
Having shaken off Du Plessis, as it were, Malherbe – it helps that he is regarded as a particularly “thinking” prop – will know that there is little room for resting on his laurels just because his likely, immediate understudy is so much less experienced in international terms with only two caps as a 2014 end-of-year-tour substitute to boast.
In some respects, Redelinghuys is an “old-fashioned” sort of tighthead, given that his main attribute appears to be his technical ability at scrum-time, and he reminds this writer in some ways of a now reasonably distant predecessor for the Boks, the late Tommie Laubscher (six Tests, 1994-95) who you didn’t see involved in too much of the fancier stuff outside of his treasured scrum forte.
WP-based Laubscher, like the 1.79m Redelinghuys, had a fairly low centre of gravity so looseheads found it tricky to “get underneath” him at the set-piece, whereas Malherbe is taller and bulkier – though that is not to say he is ever noticeably dominated by a foe in a No 1 jersey.
Through their different dimensions and areas of rugby strength, Malherbe and Redelinghuys may just prove a fine foil for each other, particularly remembering that the start-out tighthead often withdraws from the fray after an hour or so to allow for fresh legs off the bench.
There is always the possibility that the versatile Trevor Nyakane, primarily a loosehead, will get some game-time for the Boks on his “other” side, and he does appear a more feasible utility option than the downgraded (to SA ‘A’) Coenie Oosthuizen, who continues to labour since his medically recommended transition from a more familiar No 1 shirt.
Also not to be discounted down the line, even though he will soon pursue his first-class trade abroad, is another mere 26-year-old in Vincent Koch.
Currently in his last of two seasons on the Stormers’ books, Koch made a turbulent SA starting debut in the shock Durban defeat to Argentina last season, although it was rumoured he was not fully fit at the time and, that, coupled with an especially passionate performance from a Pumas pack, spelled double disaster in a sense.
Last year, albeit more than this one, in Super Rugby showed what a destructive scrummager he is capable of being, whilst his ball-carrying relish is a significant plus.
But my gut feel is that Malherbe and Redelinghuys, often running neck and neck and perhaps aided by both being home-based as things stand, are going to establish themselves as a fairly unbudging, stable firm for South Africa at tighthead during the generous remains of the lead-up to RWC 2019 …
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