Needed: New Bok loose-head in mid-year

Lizo Gqoboka (Gallo Images)
Lizo Gqoboka (Gallo Images)

An embarrassment of riches has suddenly taken a significant downturn … at least in one position in the Springbok rugby team.

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The glittering World Cup 2019 campaign saw the Bok brains trust enjoy the luxury of fielding two top-notch loose-head props in major outings: Tendai Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff, the former generally the starter and the latter a cracking member of the bench “Bomb Squad”.

Between them, the pair ended the tournament with a formidable 164 Test caps – Mtawarira 117 and Kitshoff 47.

Suddenly, however, both will be unavailable (Mtawarira definitely, Kitshoff almost certainly) when the national side open their 2020 account in the first of two Tests against Scotland at Newlands - assuming the coronavirus has not scuppered the clash - on 4 July.

As always intended, the popular “Beast”, a yeoman Bok servant since 2008, retired from international activity following the hoisting of the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.

What that did was supposedly open the door, and deservedly, to Kitshoff’s more regular ascension in 2020 to the No 1 jersey: he has only started a dozen of his Bok games thus far and would have been itching to make the berth his own.

But it has been confirmed by the Stormers camp that the flame-haired acting captain of the franchise has torn a pectoral muscle - it occurred late in the 24-14 defeat to the Sharks in Durban on Saturday - and will be side-lined for some four months.

That seems to rule him out of contention for the three July Test matches, the third being against renowned strong scrummagers Georgia in Port Elizabeth on 18 July, a game that might have seen Kitshoff earn his 50th Bok cap.

So in the event that the trio of internationals go ahead, Jacques Nienaber and company will be seeking a fresh occupant of the No 1 shirt unless Kitshoff gets a much earlier than expected go-ahead to resume playing.

Uncertainty surrounds the remaining roster in Super Rugby because of the global pandemic, but at least two SA franchise-based “possibles” for the vacancy, the Bulls’ Lizo Gqoboka (already sporting two Test caps as a substitute in 2019) and Lions’ Dylan Smith, haven’t yet stormed the palace performance-wise this year - though perhaps impeded by the broader struggles of their respective Highveld-based teams.

Another scenario, then, might well be for the Bok brains trust to contemplate asking either of Thomas du Toit (Sharks) or Trevor Nyakane (Bulls) to place their gradual, now blossoming conversions to tighthead on hold in July and summon their versatility: the pair still boast greater levels of career wisdom on the loose-head side of the engine room, after all.

Both played their part in RWC 2019, although Du Toit as a squad replacement for Nyakane when he tore a calf muscle in the Boks’ opener against the All Blacks in Yokohama.

They are at least well familiar with Bok systems, as low-slung Nyakane has 42 caps stretching back to 2013 and Du Toit, a particularly formidable physical specimen at 136kg, boasts 12 appearances.

The latter’s last start, perhaps significantly, came in the No 1 jersey when he operated there in the 66-7 thrashing of Canada in Kobe at the World Cup, as then-head coach Rassie Erasmus rested some of his more regular first-teamers.

Dynamic ball-carrier and clattering tackler Ox Nche, growing nicely into his new career at the Sharks after his switch from Bloemfontein, may also stick his hand up forcefully for a recall this season, after a less than stellar debut in that hotchpotch, controversial Test match against Wales in neutral Washington DC in 2018.

While the Kitshoff layoff is a blow to both “club” and country, one plus might well be that he returns a fresher force by the time the Boks’ defence of the Rugby Championship crown begins in early August …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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