London – If Springbok tighthead prop Frans Malherbe were to land himself in hot water for an alleged “bite” during their World Cup pool-closing thrashing of the United States, it would be almost extraordinarily out of character for the player.
For a man who plies his trade in the sometimes dark-art, uncompromising nether regions of the front row, the unassuming product of Paarl Boys’ High School, 24, has a reputation in the first-class game only for the most even-tempered of personalities.
Ironically, considering the supposedly damning pictures in the Daily Mail tabloid here on Thursday of Malherbe potentially sinking his teeth into the upper arm or shoulder of American lock Matt Trouville at a disbanding ruck during the Olympic Stadium clash – broadly a good-natured affair – one of the reasons the WP/Stormers player is considered to be seriously threatening Jannie du Plessis’ customary first-choice Bok berth at tighthead is his superior discipline.
That embraces not just technical offences at scrum-time (where props are frequently “pinged” by referees in a complex, often subjective area of the game) but also the area of foul play.
Du Plessis has had his notable lapses during a lengthy career in both those departments, including most recently a yellow card for a shoulder charge against Scotland at St James’ Park in Newcastle last Saturday.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has become increasingly impatient over penalty concession, and there is some thought that Malherbe, now owner of nine Bok caps, replaced the much more senior prop in the starting line-up against the USA for more reasons than simply the quick turnaround between games or the fact that Du Plessis has had a knee niggle lately.
Aside from the storm that may now be created over the camera “evidence”, the younger front-ranker performed very well against the minnows, aiding a dominant Bok scrum effort.
Malherbe has seldom been fingered for foul play of any kind; when you Google his disciplinary record at all levels the first evidence to come up of even a 10-minute “binning” appears to be in a Super Rugby match as far back as 2012, when he was deemed to have executed a dangerous tackle in a Loftus derby against the Bulls.
Even then, some reports on the match suggested the step was “a little harsh”.
The arguably incriminating photographs from Wednesday are sure to be examined by citing officials – as well as fresh looks at TV footage of the fixture – in some earnest and rightly so, given that biting is deemed one of the most severe offences in rugby and suspensions have been known to amount to well over a year in some instances.
But at this stage concrete evidence seems in short supply, particularly as the “victim”, Trouville, has been reported as saying he felt nothing, even if he was wearing some shoulder padding.
The Springboks, who otherwise appear in the happy position of entering the knockout phase of RWC 2015 with a completely clean bill of squad health for the quarter-final in roughly a week and a half, will be hoping the pictures are found to amount to nothing more than an unfortunate, freakish and momentarily unorthodox pose in the heat of normal combat.
The Daily Mail's Kevin Quigley tweeted this picture of the incident:
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Rob is attending the Bok pool phase of RWC 2015 to provide news and analysis for Sport24 readers.