Cape Town – He’s still only 24 … but we could be seeing the “old” Wilco Louw again.
The tighthead from the Kouebokkeveld region of the Western Cape made a welcome return to Springbok duty, after several weeks out of the picture, as a second-half substitute against Argentina in Mendoza last Saturday.
He grasped the opportunity to the full: Louw was one of awfully few South African shining lights in the 32-19 Rugby Championship upset defeat.
Certainly the Boks transformed in his primary area of expertise – the scrum – once he and Stormers franchise-mate Steven Kitshoff were united as the prop pairing with some 20 minutes to go (Kitshoff had made an earlier appearance off the bench, in the 43rd minute of the problematic outing).
The visitors suddenly got some handy traction at the set-piece, with Louw producing one really powerful heave and the Boks also earning a heel against the head; sometimes these can involve some elements of luck, but the tighthead is just as often a key catalyst.
It had been a bad day at the office for the starting alliance, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe, which must have disappointed and surprised head coach Rassie Erasmus and his scrum guru Matthew Proudfoot, as both had been excellent just a week earlier in the 34-21 Durban triumph over the very same Pumas.
Their general play also seemed to wane noticeably for zest in Mendoza.
For much of the season so far, the 33-year-old Mtawarira has looked a rejuvenated character in all departments, usually justifying his starting berth even if Kitshoff pushes him furiously hard with his consistent impact off the splinters.
The flame-haired customer has now been a reserve in all but two of his 29 Test appearances, so a rotational exchange with Mtawarira at some point in the remainder of the Championship would probably be the right medicine, and mutually beneficial into the bargain.
But on the often less settled tighthead side of the Bok scrum, Louw has just begun to exert renewed pressure on incumbent Malherbe.
As with several players who excelled in Durban but then lost their mojo in Mendoza, Erasmus may well offer a reprieve to Malherbe for the Brisbane Test against Australia on Saturday week, insisting instead on a major hiking of standards again.
But Louw has also probably done enough, courtesy of that pleasing short shift in Argentina, to at least remain the bench tighthead, ahead of Thomas du Toit for the time being.
The Boks will wish to target the Wallaby scrum, which is not a special strength of theirs, and Erasmus is likely to be tempted to have two out-and-out specialists again for the anchoring role at Suncorp Stadium, rather than the more marauding, versatile “Tank Engine” as the substitute for the Queensland-based encounter.
If he continues to show renewed appetite, Louw could yet force his way back to starting Bok tighthead before the Championship has run its course.
It would be a fitting event, as it was at the tail-end of last year’s tournament, replacing an out-of-sorts Ruan Dreyer during the Newlands thriller against the All Blacks, that he made a conspicuous international debut off the bench.
He continued to develop satisfyingly during the traditional end-of-year tour of Europe … but then came this season’s Super Rugby, where the Stormers had a largely wretched time and he was overplayed because Malherbe wasn’t yet ready, for most of the itinerary, to share the load in a fatiguing berth as he slowly rehabbed from injury.
So the stocky, low-centre-of-gravity Louw looked a jaded player in some Tests he played at the outset of Erasmus’s tenure in June.
The coach was aware of Louw’s damaging workload: he said as much to the rugby media, and duly pulled him out of the fray for a few weeks to allow for some much-needed rest and conditioning.
Are we beginning to see the fruits of that policy?
Louw was released this week from the Bok squad to play for Western Province against the Pumas in the Currie Cup on Friday night, but it is quite possible that it is largely with a view to picking up his game-time again after his “low load” spell.
Certainly it seems Malherbe is going to have to look nervously over his shoulder in terms of that starting spot at No 3 …
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