Beast Mtawarira’s neck injury has forced the Springbok coaching staff to address a potential depth issue which has flown under the radar for a while now.
With Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff seamlessly tag-teaming all comers at loosehead prop thus far in the international season, there has been little or no need to think about finding them backup with next year’s World Cup in mind.
But as the Sharks man’s injury has shown, the name of a replacement for either prop doesn’t exactly trip off the selectors’ tongues. Simply put, the lack of depth at loosehead prop rivals that at scrumhalf.
At 33, Mtawarira has reached the age at which former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger gave senior players rolling, one-year contracts because he was no longer sure how they would perform year in and year out. Put another way, there’s no knowing when the 107-Test veteran’s performance will fall off an age-induced cliff.
Given the year the big man has had – where he has been the identikit of effervescence – this suggestion does sound like nit-picking but, as a country, we have a history of sacrificing World Cups at the altar of experienced players who were past it.
Even if he had not been injured, the plan should have been to rest Mtawarira for the end-of-year tour so that he could get in a proper pre-season to produce similarly fresh performances next season because finding a like-for-like replacement at this late stage will be difficult.
Kitshoff’s freakish strength – epitomised by scrummaging that is guaranteed to locate an opposing tighthead prop’s reverse gear, and heavy lifting in the carries department – has lulled us into thinking he’ll never get injured, but the prangs in rugby have written off many a Hercules.
So, what’s the best way to bridge the gap if one or both props suddenly become unavailable next year?
We have tighthead props coming out of our cauliflower ears. The queue behind Frans Malherbe reads: Wilco Louw, Vincent Koch, Coenie Oosthuizen, Thomas du Toit and Trevor Nyakane. Now would be the time to move the latter back to loosehead prop.
Whether it’s his fluctuating weight, passing himself off as a tighthead or a freakish ability to dance for such a big fella, Nyakane takes a lot of criticism from the media and the public. But the shift he put in against the destructive Louw in the Currie Cup semi between the Blue Bulls and Western Province on Saturday emphatically suggested he be the first cab out of the taxi rank to replace Mtawarira.
Another candidate for the audition has to be the Cheetahs’ Ox Nche, whose playing in the Pro 14 seems to have put him out of sight and therefore out of mind from prying selector eyes. What’s not to like about a prop named Nietzsche (the European commentators can’t get their tongues around Nche, so the Cheetahs’ cult hero has also turned philosopher)?
The one-test Bok is still an explosive carrier and seems to fit the mould of ‘busy prop’ that the current Springbok management team favours. What’s more, he pays his scrummaging school fees in the Northern Hemisphere, so it would make sense to continue easing him in where he plays most of his rugby these days.
Looking at next year, forgotten Bulls prop and uncapped Springbok Lizo Gqoboka is probably another one the selectors would have liked to have a look at, had a persistent toe injury not curtailed the best form he has shown in his career in Super Rugby.
One player who should be feeling a little confused by how things have turned out is Du Toit, who shifted to tighthead on the advice that it would hasten his journey to being a Springbok. It did, but just as he’s committing to the right side of the scrum the bus has filled up with more experienced tightheads.
It’ll be interesting to see if Bok coach Rassie Erasmus is tempted to move him back to loosehead again.