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Silent assassin Steven Kitshoff is indispensable to Boks as he reaches half-century of caps

Silent assassin Steven Kitshoff is indispensable to Boks as he reaches half-century of caps
Steven Kitshoff of South Africa attempts to break Beka Saginadze of Georgia during the first international Test match between South Africa and Georgia at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 2July 2021 in Pretoria. (Photo: Shaun Roy / MB Media / Getty Images)

Whether he is known as “Ginger Ninja” or “Spicy Plum”, opponents of Bok loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff know they have been in a game after facing him.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

 Springbok legend Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira recalls the first time he experienced the power of Steven Kitshoff.

Back in 2012, the Sharks fielded an all-star front row featuring Mtawarira as well as Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, and were expected to destroy a Stormers side stacked with rookies.

However, thanks in large to the efforts of one red-haired, freckle-faced loosehead with a flawless scrummaging technique, the Stormers turned the tables on the veteran combination.

“That’s something you never forget,” says Mtawarira, who played 117 Tests for the Boks. “Myself, Bismarck and Jannie were the established Springbok front row at the time. We were confident about our ability to handle an inexperienced Stormers pack.

“Steven gave Jannie a torrid time on that side of the scrum, though. I had my hands full with a young Frans Malherbe. It was a wake-up call for all of us.

“That’s when I started to respect Steven as a player. There was a lot of hype about him after he was brought into the Stormers set-up as a teenager. In that match at Newlands, I found out that Steven was the real deal.” 

Junior and senior world titles

Kitshoff was one of the standouts for the South Africa under-20 team that beat New Zealand to win the 2012 Junior World Championship title. Handré Pollard and Pieter-Steph du Toit were also part of that team.

That same season, the Stormers contracted Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Malherbe and backed them to play regularly. Despite producing a series of impressive performances at Super Rugby level, Kitshoff was overlooked by the Boks. In late 2015, he accepted an offer to play for Bordeaux Bègles in France.

Kitshoff gained invaluable experience while competing on the Top 14 battlefields and was eventually drafted into the Bok squad in 2016. He won his first Test cap in the final match of the series against Ireland.

The prop’s patience was tested again, however, when he was forced to wait 18 games and more than a year for his first Test start – against the All Blacks on 7 October 2017. 

Winning 50 caps for South Africa

Nearly four years have passed since that fixture against the All Blacks, and Kitshoff has gone on to win a total of 50 Test caps.

The second Test against the British & Irish Lions sees Kitshoff starting for the 13th time in his career. He has been deployed 37 times from the South African bench – the formidable rearguard combination better known as “The Bomb Squad”.

“Steven is one of the most talented props to come out of South Africa in a long time,” says Mtawarira. “I was a strong scrummager and loved to carry the ball. Steven came along after me and offered something new to the role – he could scrum and carry but he could also win a breakdown turnover at a crucial stage of a game. That marked him as a different breed and an asset to the team.

“After playing a lot of games for the Stormers and the Boks, and particularly after enjoying a stint in France, he’s taken his game to a new level.

“Getting to 50 caps is a great achievement and just reward for his hard work. I think he can go even further in the coming years.”

Every player still treasures the opportunity to start, but the impact of the replacements usually dictates the outcome of big matches.

This was certainly evident during the latter stages of the 2019 World Cup, where Kitshoff and the other reserves combined to finish off Japan, Wales and England.

Although Mtawarira and Kitshoff competed fiercely for that No 1 jersey for much of the last World Cup cycle, they also set out to become the best “loosehead combination” in the world. It’s fair to say that they realised that goal.

“Healthy competition for the position brought out the best in me toward the end of my career, but I always knew that the day would come when I would pass the baton on to him,” says Mtawarira.

“Forwards coach Matt Proudfoot made it clear that we were part of the same package. We had to keep pushing each other to become the best loosehead pairing in the world – and I think we achieved that at the 2019 World Cup.” 

Kitshoff and Nché: best still to come

Front-rankers reach the peak of their powers in their early to mid-30s.

Os du Randt was 35 when he won his second World Cup title with South Africa. Mtawarira was 34 when he delivered the scrummaging performance of his career against England in the final of the 2019 tournament.

Kitshoff will be 31 by the time the squad departs for the 2023 World Cup. As the Stormers captain, and as a senior Bok, he will have an important leadership role to play.

“The challenge for him is to push on after 50 Tests,” says Mtawarira. “There’s also an opportunity to establish another strong loosehead combination with Ox Nché, who has impressed me since getting his chance at the Boks.

“Like Steven, Ox had to wait a few years to receive the opportunity. When he was backed to start against the Lions, he made a big impact against a good scrummager in Tadhg Furlong.

“The future is bright for the South African front row when you consider that they have Steven and Ox at their disposal.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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