Frans can sew it up tight A good performance tonight could see Malherbe as first-choice prop
IN 2010 the Western Province Rugby Institute chief executive Jacques Hanekom introduced me to a few of the young players who had been part of that year’s intake. The idea was to get an indication from them of the work being done at the institution.
One of those players was Frans Malherbe, or to give his full name Jozua Francois Malherbe, but as the prop was not well known then I didn’t take too much notice. Hanekom had to remind me two years later that Malherbe was one of the three players who had been interviewed. When they are that young, and Malherbe was just 19 at the time, props aren’t meant to be noticed as they are supposed to take much longer than other players to develop.
But Malherbe, much like his equally young Stormers teammate Steven Kitshoff, is obviously an exception to the rule, for today he is in Cardiff about to make his international debut against the European champions, Wales. And you can do the maths yourself – if he was 19 in March 2010, today he is just 22.
So much then for what former Springbok prop Balie Swart once said about learning to survive in that position.
“You sommer learn only by being stuffed up every week when you are young,” was the way Swart put it.
Swart played tighthead for the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup but was of course a loosehead earlier in his career – and indeed for most of it – and players on the left-hand side of the scrum perhaps do come through a bit quicker. But for a tighthead it is almost unheard of for the ship to come in when you are still in your early 20s.
That does not mean he is not ready, and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, who has played a lot of rugby with Malherbe, is particularly excited about the possibility of what the former Paarl Boys High captain can bring in his tough baptism game at the Millennium Stadium today.
“In my view he is a quality rugby player, and he ticks all the boxes for a tighthead prop,” said De Villiers on the eve of the match.
“He is still young, and we all know he has massive boots to fill (in that he is filling in for the experienced Jannie du Plessis). But I am definitely sure that he can do the job, and I am expecting a great game from him. This is a fantastic opportunity for him and I fully expect him to make the most of it.”
Of course, as former Springbok hooker Charl Marais noted at a function I attended recently, times have changed a bit for front-row forwards in the professional era.
“Back in my day they were the ugly, unfashionable guys who had to sit back at the hotel eating milk tart and talking about scrumming when we were on tour, but these days frontrow players, particularly tightheads are so valuable they get paid more than any other player,” said Marais.
That means foreign clubs are sure to bring their cheque books and wave them enticingly at Malherbe, who fortunately is one of several young players who WP have wisely contracted long term. But as tightheads are meant to mature late and play their best rugby at an august stage of their career – Jannie du Plessis is 30 and reckons only now is he at the top of his game – today could be the start of a long stint in the green and gold for Malherbe.
However, although Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has worked with him for some time now and obviously rates him, Malherbe will be aware that many a Bok prop has had his career either ended or defined by an end of year tour.
In other words, it could go either way, and let’s not forget the aforementioned Du Plessis was sent home early by Peter de Villiers in 2009 when he was part of a Bok front row that fell apart against the Leicester Tigers.
He was fortunate to be recalled in 2010, but others have not been so fortunate. It is probably unfair to use CJ van der Linde as an example as he did have a long international career, and played in a winning World Cup final, before being jettisoned by Meyer following a mediocre tour from him when last the Boks were in this part of the world last November.
But where is Heinke van der Merwe, who got his opportunity when Beast Mtawarira was forced to return home because of heart palpitations? Called in at the 11th hour, Van der Merwe did remarkably well, but has subsequently been forgotten. Malherbe won’t want to suffer the same fate, and will be acutely aware of Meyer’s plans to ultimately convert Coenie Oosthuizen into an international tighthead.
There is no good reason though why Malherbe shouldn’t measure up, for his sharp upward trajectory in a career which now includes 33 Stormers caps, which is a lot for one so young, suggests he is the real deal. Apart from his strong scrumming performances, he contributes more than many tighthead props do in general play.
Indeed, with Du Plessis sometimes frustrating his coaches with defensive lapses, Malherbe has enough potential and there is time on his side for him to leapfrog both Oosthuizen and Du Plessis in the pecking order and stake a claim to go to the next World Cup as first choice No 3.
Sound fanciful? Not if you consider that there are still two years to go until that World Cup, and just three years ago Malherbe was fresh out of school and just another eager student at the WP Rugby Institute.
RISING STAR: Western Province prop Frans Malherbe has deservedly been selected to the Springbok squad after consistent performances throughout his rugby career.