France: Coenie’s big break?

Coenie Oosthuizen (Gallo)
Coenie Oosthuizen (Gallo)

Cape Town – A patient super-sub for 13 Tests thus far, Cheetahs battering ram Coenie Oosthuizen seems closer than ever now to a maiden start for the Springboks ... unless there is a curveball call-up from back home for veteran Jannie du Plessis.

Although the traditional “Monday medical” press conference, involving team doctor Craig Roberts, only takes place in Paris on Tuesday given that the Boks’ victory over Scotland at Murrayfield was a rare Sunday kick-off, signals from the camp suggest emerging tighthead prop Frans Malherbe is extremely doubtful for the closing Test of the tour against France in Paris on Saturday (22:00 SA time).

The Boks have the now Sharks-bound No 3 specialist Lourens Adriaanse in their tour midst, but he has not featured at all thus far and will be ring-rusty after several weeks of inactivity.

His last match was the Currie Cup promotion/relegation second leg for Griquas against the victorious Pumas at Mbombela Stadium on October 25.

Reports on Monday suggest Du Plessis, who cried off the tour injured, is being “sounded out” about answering a possible SOS, although his state of readiness from both a conditioning and rehabilitation point of view was unclear at the time of writing.

So assuming that Malherbe cannot be considered for a third successive start for his country, Oosthuizen is finally going to have to be trusted, you would think, for a first-time starting role.

The justification for that likelihood must have only improved after his slightly longer than usual, 43-minute activity against the Scots: Malherbe walked off in discomfort before halftime with an apparent rib cartilage injury.

While a school of thought remains that Oosthuizen – especially with his menacing ball-carrying ability – is better suited to the loosehead side, he hardly looked a fish out of water at scrum-time against the Scots.

Throw in the fact that his work rate outside the set-piece was exemplary, and he really should be the “go-to guy” for the possible vacancy at No 3 against the traditionally tough-scrummaging French.

The Bok pack collectively only demonstrated once more at Murrayfield how lethal they can be in rumbling mauls near the opposition try-line, and having Oosthuizen’s 127kg of mass available from the outset can only be an enhancing factor in that regard.

Of course it is in the scrums that the 24-year-old would most keenly be judged, but if the Boks want a genuinely acid test of his ability to thrive in the anchoring role and establish himself as Du Plessis’s logical deputy for the next couple of years, Stade de France could well be it.

Some comfort for the Boks, perhaps, is that France’s most revered present front-row scrummager, the similarly versatile Nicolas Mas, is now fairly well established at tighthead himself, so would not lock horns directly with Oosthuizen, but rather Beast Mtawarira, who will return to the No 1 jersey ahead of so-so Gurthro Steenkamp for Saturday night.

The Free Stater (assuming that the French stick to their front-row mix from the laboured 38-18 triumph over Tonga) would grapple Yannick Forestier, the Castres loosehead who is almost 32 but only got the first of his seven Test caps against Australia a year ago.

Interestingly, though, the French selectors have also recalled the more experienced Thomas Domingo to their extended squad for the meeting with the Boks; he is a squat, only 1.73m scrummager with a renowned shrewd technique despite his relatively modest 110kg.

Oosthuizen stands 1.87m and sports a weight advantage of some 17kg, although they always say scrum battles are not won by tape measure or on the scales.

Assuming he gets the nod for South Africa as a starting element at last, we could be in for a real clash of styles on Oosthuizen’s side of the front row ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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