Tue 8 May 2018 | 06:00

READERS' OPINION: Boks in a bind

READERS' OPINION: Boks in a bind
Tue 8 May 2018 | 06:00
READERS' OPINION: Boks in a bind

* This is the reader's own view and not necessarily that of the editorial staff.

Heading into the first season under the guidance of Rassie Erasmus, South Africa has serious ground to make up against the top Test teams in the world.

Erasmus has been hosting alignment camps with the Super Rugby teams to try and post a roadmap for the rebirth of South African rugby.

A fact that cannot be denied is that South Africa possesses a wealth of talent that is the envy of most countries.

In my opinion, Erasmus will have a tough time selecting players in the more technically difficult positions – namely No.8, flyhalf and most importantly tighthead prop.

The selection of No.8 and flyhalf will be difficult to fill as Erasmus will have to select players possessing varying skill sets and styles of play, a decision that will have to be made by Erasmus himself according to his game plan.

Tighthead prop though will prove his greatest challenge.

As the late Danie Craven once said: "The second most important player in your team is your replacement tighthead prop."

This statement has been proven over and over again, no matter how flashy your outside backs are you cannot effectively use them without a solid set-piece and aggression in loose play.

In years passed South Africa had great depth in the tighthead berth.

During Jake White's tenure as national coach, he was spoiled for choice.

White had arguably the best tighthead ever produced in South Africa in his World Cup-winning team, CJ Van der Linde.

Van der Linde was a freak of nature he possessed superhuman strength and great pace, this can be attributed to him being a 200-metre age group sprinting and discus champ.

Van der Linde in his time at the Springboks was understudied by BJ Botha and Jannie Du Plessis. Both of which were outstanding players and could dominate any opposition.

When Pieter de Villiers was in charge, he continued with Whites tighthead options.

BJ Botha had subsequently moved to Ulster and then Munster to continue his career. Eventually, for the 2011 World Cup Jannie Du Plessis was the unchallenged tighthead, with Van der Linde tagging along to play out his golden years.

During the De Villiers era Brian Mujati was lost to Europe. Mujati was a great option for an understudy to Van der Linde and Du Plessis.

However, it was when Heyneke Meyer took control of the national team that the tighthead woes truly began.

Albeit Meyer was not handed any players in the position that had received proper guidance in the dark arts.

For the 2015 World Cup Meyer picked an aged and out of sorts Du Plessis and Frans Malherbe, with Coenie Oosthuizen providing cover in an emergency.

During Meyer's tenure and with his selection requirements, favouring a ball carrying tighthead as opposed to a technically superior  scrummager, a lot of tighthead potential were lost to Europe – Wian Herbst, WP Nel and Allan Dell, to name a few.

All these players have aspirations to play Test rugby for their adopted countries and are undoubtedly world-class.

The importance of blooding new players in tighthead is vital, as each and every new opposing loosehead prop has a different technique and tricks to put a tighthead off.

Case and point is the New Zealand Test last year. Ruan Dreyer was picked to make his debut, after a storming season with the Lions – who scrummed every team to pieces in Super Rugby.

In the match, Dreyer came up against a tricky Kane Hames, by far not New Zealand's first choice, and was destroyed. With no experience on the bench, the humiliation continued the whole game – to the point where pundits have written off his entire Test career.

It is grossly unfair to Dreyer.

The All Blacks have made tighthead a legacy position, with one great handing over to the next over the course of a few seasons.

Karl Hayman was understudied by John Afoa, who in turn taught Owen Franks the trade of dark arts, who is now slowly handing over to Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Nepo Laulala.

It means that before these new tightheads are required to carry the pack as first choice starters, they already have at least 20 caps of guidance.

In the future South African unions and franchises must protect and nurture young tightheads coming through the ranks,  especially considering that tightheads only hit their prime in their late 20s.

For 2018 the specialist tightheads called up the alignment camps are Ruan Dreyer (Lions), Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks), Wilco Louw (Stormers) and Frans Malherbe (Stormers).

Each one has their strengths and weaknesses.

The best in my opinion by a long way is Wilco Louw, he is naturally talented and technically sound. However, he only has five Test caps.

He is likely to be picked for the June series against England, which is concerning – as he has played a titanic role for the Stormers this season and has put in a lot of minutes.

Ruan Dreyer is a great player and deserves to play Test rugby, but he needs time to build his confidence up.

Coenie Oosthuizen a retreaded loosehead has had a tough time of it lately getting acquainted with his new position, but has improved greatly. Unfortunately has been ruled out by injury for the 2018 season.

Frans Malherbe billed as the tighthead saviour. He made his debut in 2013 and has since only managed to pick up 17 caps. Frans Malherbe's injury record shows him to be as reliable as rain in the Kalahari.

Also, in recent seasons, he just has not looked as if he is physically up to playing Test rugby.

However, with proper rehab and game time management, hopefully, he can live up to his potential.

Outside of the South African-based players, Vincent Koch has been approached by Erasmus, even though he does not reach the 30-Test threshold he looks to be considered. It is important to remember that none of the specialist tightheads have 30 caps.

Hopefully, Erasmus can build the experience among his available tighthead's to ensure a continuity and healthy competition for starting places and not just picking players to cover the gaps.  

By Roy Robertson

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