Boks: Your time has come, Mr Koch!

Vincent Koch
Vincent Koch

Cape Town - The cruellest of blows to popular, in-form Trevor Nyakane ... but a major step-up chance now for under-rated Vincent Koch.

That is probably how best to sum up the enforced change to the Springbok front-row arsenal for the remainder of RWC 2019.

The sacrifice of Nyakane, who was pushing so hard to displace current first-choice tighthead prop Frans Malherbe, undoubtedly represents a serious dent to the Bok hull.

It is a savage irony that he was so fit and prolifically deployed by the Bulls in Super Rugby this year; then the poor fellow lasts only 21 minutes after coming off the bench against the All Blacks in the World Cup pool opener, tearing a calf and leaving the park visibly distraught.

Yet don’t they also say that every fire brings renewal to the hillside?

The Boks are (well, were) blessed, I believe, by the fact that they may have entered this particular World Cup with their best triumvirate of options at No 3 yet, from seven tournaments.

It was no surprise that the gargantuan Thomas du Toit was called up as Nyakane’s replacement, although he is highly likely to remain very much the third in the tighthead pecking order: the Sharks man brings pleasing, Nyakane-like versatility across the front row, but still has work to do to become a true enforcer with his right shoulder at the set-piece.

So at least for the time being, Malherbe will probably still command premier status - he was far better against New Zealand than some will give credit for - but Koch now leapfrog into the more meaningful back-up berth, and be tasked with providing impact off the bench for 20 minutes or thereabouts in more critical fixtures.

The Saracens-based player is more than capable of doing justice to the role … potentially even putting as much constructive selection heat on former Newlands ally Malherbe as Nyakane was doing.

Malherbe receives criticism at times for a perception that his work-rate outside of scrum-time is limited, but I also never felt the 125kg unit was significantly behind general play on Saturday despite the lung-challenging conditions – and he got a really raw deal in the early scrum exchanges from French referee Jerome Garces and his co-officials.

Frankly, the Boks might have won penalties two or three times for Malherbe’s NZ loosehead rival Joe Moody’s elbow repeatedly going to deck under pressure, and it would have been a major statement - and tonic to the broader pack cause - by the Bok anchorman.

Yet the All Black escaped being pinged each time.

The one thing to remember about Malherbe, also, is that he incredibly seldom gets buckled himself at the set-piece; he is a bastion of reassuring solidity.

Nor is he especially culpable when it comes to glaringly missing tackles … an area where Jannie du Plessis, of a slightly earlier Bok generation of tightheads, sometimes came in for critical scrutiny in his later years.

All that said, Koch now hurtles back into the match-day picture (almost certainly; coach Rassie Erasmus is usually very clear and consistent about his pecking-order priorities) in virtually as important jersey No 18.

He is tailor-made for proper impact - probably more than Malherbe is, which only underlines why Big Frans tends to start matches more often than not - as he has a natural relish for ball-carrying, and is very hard to stop when on the drive a few metres from the try-line.

Fifty minutes to an hour of Malherbe, followed by the remaining time from Koch: it is still a gratifying prospect for South Africa, despite the deep Nyakane setback.

The 29-year-old has developed his overall game significantly since switching his first-class base to Sarries in 2016 - there is no place to hide if your scrummaging doesn’t cut the mustard in often stop-start winter English conditions - though never yet benefited from a significant spell of regular activity for the Boks.

His 15 caps have been scattered over five international seasons thus far, and split between eight as a starter and seven off the splinters.

But, even if as a “supersub” a lot of the time, that phenomenon may finally present itself during the still generous remainder (we hope) of the Springboks’ RWC 2019 campaign ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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