Prop exodus may be benefitting SA
Every time one of them leaves our shores there is an outcry, but the flourishing export business in prop forwards might actually be having a beneficial effect for South African rugby.
At least that is the view of one of the country’s finest front-row forward exports, Pieter de Villiers. His departure wasn’t one that immediately benefitted his country of birth, for De Villiers didn’t return during his playing career to help the younger players.
But there again, that might be the fault of the coaches at the time, for on at least one occasion he sent out feelers to Western Province without there being sufficient interest shown in return. In the end he can hardly be blamed for opting for a long and successful career with France.
What De Villiers learned though playing French club and international rugby is being ploughed back for the benefit of South Africa now, for he is rubbing his influence and experience off on the current Bok team in his role as scrum doctor.
And he reckons the current legion of northern hemisphere-based props are doing the same thanks to head coach Heyneke Meyer’s willingness to engage overseas players.
“The selection is something that is up to coach Heyneke and you would have to ask him about that, but one of the fortunate positions we are in is that we are able to call on very experienced players,” said De Villiers on Tuesday.
“When you have guys like Gurthro Steenkamp and CJ van der Linde coming into a squad you are drawing on a lot of experience, and they help in the process of bringing young props through as well.”
Steenkamp is currently playing for Toulouse and has been in excellent form. According to forwards coach Johan van Graan, he has been putting in massive hits and energy in training sessions since recovering from his rib injury, and he is itching to get back into the green and gold jersey again after being out of the international loop for the past year.
Van der Linde, a veteran of the 2007 World Cup victory, where he packed down on the tighthead side of the scrum in the final against England, has also campaigned in the northern hemisphere before returning to play provincial and Super Rugby last year.
Former Lions prop Heinke van der Merwe plays in Ireland, and was one of the unsung heroes of the victory against that country as he came into the squad as an emergency call-up late in the build-up week and yet played an influential role as the Bok scrum forced crucial penalties when he was on the field in the last quarter.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Van der Merwe left South Africa as a young and promising player, but now has three years of experience in Ireland behind him.
“Heinke never even had a scrum session with us and yet he delivered,” said De Villiers.
“The point is that these players have matured and are now ready to play international rugby, and they are ready to rub off what they have learned on the players around them. They also bring a lot extra by having played in Europe. It is a different game over here, where because of the conditions the ball is usually played very close, so a lot of emphasis is put on forward play.
“They learn a lot by being part of a different set-up, and they bring that experience into the squad.”
It is certainly a different view from the commonly held one that the exodus of props is watering down the rite-of-passage aspect of domestic rugby in South Africa.
Because of the departure of props once they have matured and are in demand, the front-row forwards are being blooded much earlier in Currie Cup and even in Super Rugby than used to be the case.
WP for instance had an entire under-21 front-row playing for them when they shocked the Sharks in the recent Currie Cup final in Durban.
One of those players, tighthead Frans Malherbe, has just been added to the Bok squad as a replacement for the indisposed Beast Mtawarira and, if De Villiers is correct, will in the remaining weeks of this tour be benefitting from the experience of the overseas-based players as well as learning from his first taste of training and possibly even playing in the northern hemisphere.
Props mature by going through the school of hard knocks, and former Bok legend Balie Swart used to often say that he learned more from being given a torrid going over at the hands of someone like Hempies du Toit in the Cape club leagues when he was young than from his good performances against less capable and wizened opponents.
Anyone who has seen WP or the Stormers play in recent times will agree that while Malherbe and his prop partner Steven Kitshoff have made impressive progress as players so young, it hasn’t been easy for them and they have experienced enough uncomfortable moments that they can learn from.
“It’s always dangerous to look for opposition weaknesses, it’s better to look at your own team, and we will be hoping against Scotland to gain out of having players learn more from what for many of them is a first experience of playing against northern hemisphere teams in their own conditions,” said De Villiers.