TOUCH, PAUSE… CRUSH
In the Boks’ huge, cohesive scrum, Frans Malherbe’s influence should not be underestimated
Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe, who seems to take every challenge in his stride, was a vital cog in the wheel of the World Cup scrum.
SA Rugby recently announced that Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe and Damian Willemse have been shortlisted for the 2023 Player of the Year award. Although Etzebeth is the frontrunner for this prestigious accolade, the impact of the Springbok scrum at the World Cup in France deserves special mention, given that it set the platform for a monumental title victory.
No one person deserves credit for that set-piece performance. It was director of rugby Rassie Erasmus who initiated a cultural shift back in 2018 and tasked then forwards coach Matt Proudfoot with transforming the Bok scrum into a weapon. Proudfoot’s successor, Daan Human, took that forward after the 2019 World Cup, and South Africa’s front-row ranks swelled to include three world-class combinations.
Ox Nché has received most of the set-piece plaudits in the wake of the recent World Cup, and rightly so, as his cameo against England in the semifinal turned the match in South Africa’s favour. But the influence of Malherbe, a mountain of a man at 1.9m and 123kg, should not be underestimated.
Leader of the pack
“You can run down the team list and speak about the impact of each player, but for me, Frans was the standout at the recent World Cup,” says Proudfoot. “When he was on the park, the scrum never went backwards. If you’re looking to build a pack, that’s the kind of player you build it around.”
He is without a doubt the best tighthead in the world – and like Steven [Kitshoff], his best years are still ahead.
Proudfoot notes how much the Bok scrum – and Malherbe in particular – have improved.
“[What’s] really impressed me over the past four years is the synergy of the collective and their work post-engagement,” he says.
“Frans  is a bit like those [batters] in cricket that never get flustered and seem to have all the time in the world. He just takes every challenge in his stride. He is without a doubt the best tighthead in the world – and like Steven [Kitshoff], his best years are still ahead.”
Iron sharpens iron
Hanyani Shimange played nine Tests at hooker for the Boks in the mid-2000s. He currently serves as a scrum consultant for the Stormers, and in that capacity he has worked closely with Test stalwarts such as Kitshoff and Malherbe for several years.
As a commentator and analyst for SuperSport, Shimange has toured with the Boks in recent seasons, and has often witnessed their brutal scrumming training sessions first-hand.
“Most teams hold live scrum sessions [where teammates pack down against one another], and they can be the hardest sessions of the week. To see how competitive the Boks were during these sessions was something else,” he admits.
“To be clear, they weren’t trying to destroy each other. There would be a fierce contest, and then there would be a conversation. If Frans was scrumming against Ox, for example, he might tell Ox what did and didn’t work in terms of his shape and bind. That’s the level of maturity and unity that exists among these players, and why they’ve been able to take their scrum to the next level in recent years.”
Malherbe chuckles when he’s pressed for comment. Although he’s been a fearless competitor for the Boks and Stormers over the past decade, he readily admits that the live scrummaging sessions pushed him to the limit.
“Most of the time, I had to scrum against Ox,” Malherbe states.
“He is very, very good.”
Most dominant scrum
With World Cup winners such as Kitshoff, Malherbe, Nché, Vincent Koch and Trevor Nyakane in tow – as well as Thomas du Toit and Wilco Louw, who have been outstanding for Bath and the Bulls respectively in recent months – the Boks should go from strength to strength in 2024.
“They’re certainly the most dominant scrum I’ve seen in world rugby,” says Shimange.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Springboks share how they clinched a fourth Rugby World Cup title with a common goal and camaraderie
“Sure, there have been times when the Boks have been challenged. Ireland were tactically good in the recent World Cup pool game in Paris… but towards the end of that game, the Boks took charge.
“That’s been the pattern: The opposition might survive the first half, but they often succumb to the attack that follows, often via the bench, in the second. Once the Boks have got a team on the ropes, they tend to dominate.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.