Johannesburg - Years ago, when Os du Randt made his first comeback from retirement, one of his coaches thought he’d turn him into a tighthead prop because he was older and slower.
The big fella wasn’t a fan of the new plan, so sanity prevailed soon enough and he was back enforcing left shoulders on his desired side of the scrum. Asked why he’d been so against playing tighthead, he said something along the lines of: “The easiest way to find a spot on the bench is to be seen as versatile.”
The Bulls’ Trevor Nyakane, he of swing prop infamy, won’t argue with that, while young Sharks prop Thomas du Toit may come around to that way of thinking if the experiment to turn him into a tighthead keeps yielding results like last weekend’s debacle against the Lions.
Du Toit, who unhinged every tighthead put in front of him except Western Province’s Wilco Louw in the Currie Cup, was rendered more “the little engine that thought it could” than “Thomas the Tank” by the Lions’ Jacques van Rooyen after being switched to the right side of the scrum.
The official reason given for the move is that SA Rugby has made the request in the interests of Springbok rugby. That Springbok rugby supposedly doesn’t have an official coach to make such calls as we speak is a story for another day, but there are real concerns that there aren’t enough tightheads in the system.
Coenie Oosthuizen and Frans Malherbe are crocked, the latter with no strict time frame for his return, leaving the redoubtable but inexperienced Louw and perennial over-extender Ruan Dreyer as our internationally capped tightheads.
Enter the strapping Du Toit, whose 1.87m and 128kg frame has been put through the tighthead wringer without success before, in a move designed as much to save him time queuing up at loose head as it is at solving the Boks’ problem.
For these things to work, the player needs to buy into the experiment, and the fact that Du Toit turned up at tighthead last weekend means he has.
Besides, who wouldn’t happily shift over to the other side of the scrum if it meant not waiting in line behind Steven Kitshoff, Beast Mtawarira and Nyakane, and having to fight it out with the likes of Ox Nché to be a Bok at 22?
But, as Du Randt suspected all those years ago, the problem with positional switches – especially in a game as complex as rugby – is how hit and miss they can be. What makes it even trickier is that no two positions are the same in rugby.
A four lock is very different to a five lock; inside centre answers to a different job description to outside centre; left and right wing are not just down to two of the quickest guys in the team; and just because they’re all loose forwards doesn’t mean the two flanks and the eighthman can rotate in the loose trio.
The two greatest examples of positional switches I can think of in international rugby are Jonah Lomu from flank to wing and Stephen Larkham from fullback to flyhalf. The fact that we barely remember what their original positions were underlines how successful the changes were.
In those changes that took place under the “taking one for the team” banner, former Bulls and Bok utility forward Danie Rossouw has to get a mention. Rossouw did so much good work at lock for the Bulls, people think he arrived at Loftus Versfeld as a lock, when he did so as a blindside flank who would play No 8 for the Boks in the 2007 World Cup final and make that try-saving tackle.
There have been some struggles, like Joost van der Westhuizen being tried at wing and Christian Cullen being shoehorned at outside centre to accommodate the All Blacks’ embarrassment of riches in the back three.
There have been switches not made for rugby reasons, like how many black inside backs tend to find themselves at wing or fullback (if they were lucky). Over at the Sharks, one looks at André Esterhuizen and thinks blindside flank all day, but the jersey number suggests a “creative” 12.
Only time will tell which side of the scale Du Toit’s move falls on.
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