Rugby | Malherbe’s chance for Bok ‘relaunch’

Cape Town – Some
three years ago, Frans Malherbe seemed the next big thing, and not just
physically, in Springbok tighthead props.

Instead he
has endured varying periods of mostly injury-related frustration in the
subsequent period.

So when he
runs on for the Springboks as starting No 3 against England in the second Test
at Bloemfontein on Saturday, it is really his opportunity to wipe the slate
clean and put himself squarely back in Bok plans for the World Cup next year.

It was one
cycle back, at RWC 2015, after all, that we witnessed what turned out to be largely
a false dawn from him.

at that tournament, the then 24-year-old heaped massive pressure on veteran
tighthead incumbent Jannie du Plessis for first-choice status.

Finally, he
wooed the head coach of the time, Heyneke Meyer, into acknowledging that his
significantly greater workload and mobility – not to mention emerging
credentials at the set-piece – warranted starts ahead of the older of the two
Du Plessis front-row brothers.

Malherbe got
his chance to begin regularly curtailing the qualified doctor to the
“splinters” in the closing group fixture against the United States at London’s
Olympic Stadium … a game the Boks won 64-0 to confirm an admirable spell of renewed
zest after that horror start to the tournament against Japan in Brighton.

He then kept
Du Plessis second in the pecking order for the remainder of the event,
including victories over Wales in a quarter-final and Argentina in the bronze
playoff, the lone hiccup in the sequence being the very tight 20-18 semi-final
loss to the All Blacks.

But if that
World Cup appeared to establish Malherbe as premier man in the anchoring role
at scrum-time, things sadly didn’t go quite to plan.

He has sat
out major portions of rugby seasons since, including most recently as he recovered,
over torturous months, from what is perhaps a prop forward’s biggest curse – a
serious neck injury.

setbacks at what should have been “cream” periods of his general rugby career
go a long way to explaining why the 125kg unit who hails from the Cape
winelands has only added a further five to his total tally of 17 Test caps
since RWC 2015 in the UK.

In his
absence, and mostly during the turbulent Allister Coetzee tenure as coach, the
Boks have fielded several others in the tighthead berth, including Julian
Redelinghuys (since forced into premature retirement), Coenie Oosthuizen,
Vincent Koch, Ruan Dreyer and Wilco Louw.

But incumbent
mastermind Rassie Erasmus acknowledged earlier this week that Louw (Malherbe’s
younger Stormers colleague) is suffering from fatigue, considering how he has
largely carried the Super Rugby can this season; Malherbe only re-entered the
radar with the Stormers’ playoffs aspirations already largely in tatters.

In an ideal
world, the pair would have been deftly rotated during the campaign by Robbie
Fleck, keeping both suitably fresh and on their toes, but the laboured return
to full fitness by the latter wreaked havoc with that intended, attractive

Louw is now – perhaps wisely, and with a chance to rest and undertake a bit of renewed
conditioning – omitted entirely from the Bok match-day mix, with Sharks
behemoth Thomas du Toit still tasked with adding oomph off the bench at some

The “Tank
Engine” will doubtless need to do that, perhaps from notably early in the
second half, as Malherbe is about as short of high-level rugby as hooker Bongi
Mbonambi was before the Johannesburg Test.

But the
tenacious player put aside that drawback to deliver a gutsy, beavering performance
in the No 2 shirt, and Malherbe will hopefully take a leaf from that book – smack
alongside Mbonambi, after all – in Bloemfontein.

The only
other change to the starting XV revealed by Erasmus on Thursday sees versatile
Pieter-Steph du Toit replace Jean-Luc du Preez at blindside flank.

Du Preez may
consider himself a tad unlucky, but the more street-smart Du Toit (that’s not
the worst attribute for a possibly series-deciding match) is a gifted rugby
player, regardless of his specific positional station, so there should really
be no skin off the Sharks rookie’s nose.

22-year-old’s chance will come again, and he may even get an opportunity to
impress anew off the bench this weekend.

Du Preez was
moderate, you might say, in the pulsating first-Test victory at Emirates
Airline Park, and perhaps Erasmus was a making a key, wider statement by
demoting him to the reserves.

After all,
in the “Toetie” period, one of his main shortcomings was too often rewarding relative
mediocrity in performance with ongoing selection.

could well be saying that more outright excellence is far more the quality he
seeks, from one week to the next …

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