Three’s a crowd, but one stands out
● A career-threatening neck injury has brought rugby and life into sharper focus for Springbok prop Frans Malherbe.
But then, he’s always been armed with a healthy dose of perspective.
“I’ve known him since he was a schoolboy. I think he’s mentally tough and he’s a good leader. He’s a tough player and I really trust him,” came former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s prescient assessment of Malherbe in the lead-up to his Test debut in Wales in 2013.
Malherbe arrived on the scene with a reputation as big as his physical dimensions. However, the bone-shuddering collisions which his position demands took an orthopaedic toll on his 124kg, 1.9m frame.
It has served as a hand-brake to a career that had promised to go places.
Tighthead queue heavily congested
A neck injury halted his progress last season and proper diagnosis during the Rugby Championship confirmed he would be confined to the sidelines for an extended period.
The time-out taught him to live in the moment and embrace the here and now. Having watched other tightheads pack down for the Boks brought the realisation that life goes on, no matter what. The Bok tighthead queue is a heavily congested space with Wilco Louw, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Thomas du Toit, Vincent Koch and Ruan Dreyer all capable of doing what is required.
“If you get nervous about that you’re thinking about yourself,” said Malherbe about the competition. “The focus has to be on the team. Do your primary job to the best of your ability. It brings confidence because the guys in the queue can take my position any day.
“It is not an individual thing. All of us get along really well. We help each other and share knowledge. Vincent (Koch) has played at Saracens for quite a while. The other guys haven’t (played overseas), so there is experience to be gained from him. At the end of the day the Springboks must benefit from that.
“There is obviously very good competition at tighthead. With good competition among each other it will bring out the best in each other.”
Given the gravity of his injury, Malherbe’s recovery and rapid return to form has been quite staggering. He has been the fulcrum of the Bok scrum this season, while the alacrity with which he cleans rucks, defends around the fringes, or even bursts through the odd gap, suggests he is at the peak of his powers.
He played a handful of games before Bok coach Rassie Erasmus selected him for the series against England.
“I’m very grateful to Western Province for giving me that opportunity. I went from there to Super Rugby and got some game time and then Rassie backed me against the English. I’m very grateful when I look back, to where I started this season and I’m sitting here now.
“There are different opinions about how you get back from long-term injury. It worked out quite well for me.”
On his toes, always
Malherbe, who in June made his comeback 365 days after his last Bok appearance, made it clear then that there was no easing back. “There is no place to hide anymore. You have to be more dynamic. You have to be fitter, more agile and keep up with the pace of the game,” he said then in Bloemfontein.
He has played seven Tests this year and has looked every bit the player Meyer waxed lyrical about in 2013.
“Every week with the Boks you gain experience. Every game, there is a massive amount of pressure you have to deal with. You never get used to it. You are always on your toes to be your best.”