Sharks hooker Franco Marais powers into a Blue Bulls defender during a recent Currie Cup match. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

DURBAN - John Allan, the larger-than-life former Natal and Springbok hooker, can pinpoint the exact moment when the game turned for the Sharks in their recent shock Currie Cup loss to Western Province at Kings Park.

"It was when (hooker) Franco Marais left the field in the second half,” the colourful Allan said with conviction. “The Sharks were in charge and then it changed when Franco went off.

"I am telling you that Franco is the most underrated player in South African rugby. He does not get the rave reviews or the call-ups (to the Springboks) but just keeps his head down and gives 110 percent to his team each and every game.

“If he does not get selected for the end-of-year Bok tour, I want to know why!”

That is choice praise from Allan, who was a fiery member of the illustrious “Natal team of the 1990s” who played 13 Tests for South Africa and one for Scotland.

Allan is an expert on the art of hooker play. There is no fooling this old dog and he is miserly with his praise of fellow hookers unless they deserve it.

“I have been watching Franco for a long time,” Allan said.

“He is a classic hooker in that he does his duty as a tight forward first - the basic work in the scrums, line-out and tight-loose exchanges - then once he has given that his all, he goes out wide to look for extra work.

“Very few tight forwards do that and it is what makes him world class.”

The 25-year-old Marais’ career story fits snugly with what Allan has observed.

There is nothing but humility from a player who came from the wrong side of the rugby tracks - no schoolboy honours for him at Vanderbijl Park’s Transvalia - and he came to Durban after school as a paying customer at the Sharks Academy.

He worked his way into the senior team, getting none of the favours that sometimes go to players who have achieved at age group level.

He has been a regular in the Sharks’ starting line-up since Bismarck du Plessis left at the end of 2015.

The pair could not have more contrasting reputations. Du Plessis is one of the most famous rugby players in the world, Marais relatively unknown.

But he most certainly caught the eye of Allan.

“Franco is the consummate team man,” said the 53-year-old founder and former chief executive of SA Rugby Legends.

“He has heart, and you can’t buy that. You can see it in how he tackles. He makes the hit, does not look around to see if anybody has seen, gets up as quickly as possible and rejoins the defence line. If a team had 15 Franco Maraises, nobody else would be needed.”

Hard yards

“I give it my all on the field and try to be everywhere because I don’t have the physique of a Bismarck," Marais said earlier this season.

“I like doing the hard yards; I have done them my whole life.”

Marais’ family have always been Sharks supporters and he says it broke his heart when the Sharks lost to the Bulls in the Super 12 final in 2007 (he was 14 at the time).

“I came to Durban to try and fulfil my dream of playing for the Sharks. I did everything I could to become the best hooker I could be,” he says.

“Every day I threw 100 balls at the tyres we have as targets at the Academy, and I had a notebook in which I recorded what I had done in training each day.”

Slowly, recognition for the Sharks' age group teams came and he has climbed the ranks one by one.

“It has been a hard slog but I would not have had it any other way because it has made me appreciate it all the more,” Marais says.

“Every time I put on that jersey I play my heart out,” he said.

The wily Allan wholeheartedly concurs.

The Mercury

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