CAPE TOWN – Just who should be packing down in the No 3 jersey for the Springboks?
There has been healthy competition among the big men who anchor the Bok scrum, and another name was added to the mix by coach Rassie Erasmus this week – Vincent Koch.
The former Stormers and Pumas strongman is a powerhouse for Saracens in England these days, and said this week how the move to the north has made him “more mature” in his prop play.
But Frans Malherbe appeared to rediscover his dynamism from a few years back with a busy display in the historic 36-34 win over the All Blacks in Wellington.
Louw, Malherbe, Wilco Louw, Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit are currently fighting it out for the Bok tighthead berth, and we took a closer look at each front-rower ahead of Saturday’s Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth.
Frans Malherbe (age: 27)
Tests: 23, Weight: 125kg, Height: 1.90m
One of Erasmus’ favourites due to their association at the Stormers in the past. Malherbe’s strengths are his work-rate in defence at close quarters and scrummaging, but he has lacked that bite of old upfront since returning from injury.
But he was almost his old self against the All Blacks in Wellington, making 12 tackles and standing strong in the scrums.
Is that enough to keep out the other contenders?
Wilco Louw (age: 24)
Tests: 10, Weight: 125kg, Height: 1.85m
This big chunk of prime beef from Ceres has been destroying anyone in front of him in the scrums. He is an old-style tighthead whose sole focus is getting the right shoulder.
Louw, though, has shown a pleasing willingness to carry the ball more often on attack, and made the odd big hit in defence.
He seems to be the best scrummager in the squad, and after initially being the first-choice, he is aiming to topple Malherbe for the No 3 jersey.
Built like a brick out-house, Louw is my pick at No 3, as gaining scrum-dominance should be the first priority for the Bok tighthead.
Vincent Koch (age: 28)
Tests: 9, Weight: 118kg, Height: 1.85m
Possibly left South African rugby at the wrong time in 2016 with regards to his Test career, but was perhaps disillusioned after being left out of the 2015 World Cup squad.
Now he has been given a second chance by Erasmus, and he intends to show the improvement he’s made in his scrummaging by playing in the northern hemisphere.
While his set-piece work hasn’t been a problem in the past, he will need to prove that he can make a contribution in the tight-loose – by cleaning out rucks, making tackles and carrying the ball.
Trevor Nyakane (age: 29)
Tests: 36, Weight: 124kg, Height: 1.78m
Injuries and fitness issues have kept Nyakane back in his bid to be the first-choice Bok tighthead in recent years.
But he returned for the Bulls in the Currie Cup, and is now training under the supervision of the Springbok conditioning coach Aled Walters over the next two weeks.
What makes him so valuable is that he is equally comfortable playing at loosehead and tighthead. While solid in the scrums, he makes a big impact as a ball-carrier and puts in big hits in defence.
But if he hopes to be the long-term solution at No 3, he must get into his best shape physically.
Thomas du Toit (age: 23)
Tests: 5, Weight: 132kg, Height: 1.90m
The heaviest and joint-tallest of the tighthead contenders, Du Toit is a real giant of a man.
He was a star loosehead at schoolboy level, but with the competition tough at No 1, he has been turned into a tighthead.
While that process is continuing, though, suddenly there is an embarrassment of riches on the right-hand side of the scrum.
For Du Toit, the point of difference may be his ball-carrying as a No 3 compared to rivals.
He has shown steady improvement in his scrummaging, but has been left out of the squad for the last two Rugby Championship games.
So he needs to dominate in the Currie Cup for the Sharks, and hope to get a chance on the end-of-year tour to stake a World Cup claim.