Frans can sew it up tight A good per­for­mance tonight could see Mal­herbe as first-choice prop

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

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.

GALLO IM­AGES

RIS­ING STAR: West­ern Prov­ince prop Frans Mal­herbe has de­servedly been se­lected to the Spring­bok squad af­ter con­sis­tent per­for­mances through­out his rugby ca­reer.

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