Scotland and Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown analyses the Springboks tighthead
It goes without saying that South Africa have a very powerful scrum.
It’s part of their DNA. And it’s a mindset thing from one to eight, not just the front row or front five. Back in 2021, in a match with Scotland, Eben Etzebeth told his own front row that if they didn’t push straight the pressure from their own back five would snap their backs. That’s what you’re dealing with.
And yet amongst this, tighthead prop Frans Malherbe stands out. In fact, he could be the most important ingredient for Springboks and Stormers scrum success.
He’s a big man and size matters – officially, he is listed as 125kg, but it feels like more. In fact post lockdown he was much heavier and interestingly, was a poorer scrummager for it, mainly as he couldn’t last the pace in games. But he does not rely solely on his size.
The trend in world rugby at the minute is to look for speed in engagement. It’s a minuscule space between front rows but if you win the hit, win the space, keep pressure on, you can control the scrum. For bigger tightheads they can at least survive in here if they use their size and weight to get into a good position then try and be aggressive post hit, knowing at worst their mass will just make them hard to move.
But what stands out is that Malherbe is a very technical scrummager as well as being big. This is why he is invaluable.
He doesn’t rely just on speed or sheer size. In fact he really isn’t an overly aggressive tighthead. He uses his size and technique to control the scrum and allows his loosehead on the other side to be aggressive. Of course, it helps that South Africa have two or three very good, aggressive looseheads!
Frans Malherbe: The technical scrummager
Malherbe is very good at getting his weight down on the loosehead’s neck on engagement. He doesn’t tend to overextend his legs, which means he doesn’t need to take those short recovery steps to get back into a good scrummaging shape. He is typically at low risk of losing his footing.
Because he isn’t overly concerned about speed of engagement he is able to focus on engaging downward onto looseheads rather than extending up – a move that can give a No 1 the opportunity to get underneath a tighthead.
His bind work on or just after engagement is world class. He locks or closes off his shoulder immediately, post engagement. This gives your loosehead no chance of recovering if they lose the hit. And even if you win it against him, because his shoulder is so good, all that weight and pressure is transferred onto the looshead’s neck. If he was slow or lazy and left his elbow high, even for a second or two, that would be enough for a good No 1 to recover. Alas…
Scrummaging against Frans Malherbe is like being put in a headlock.
Creating space to exploit
Because of this, his own loosehead and hooker can afford to be aggressive. And if this ever creates separation between the opposition hooker and his loosehead, Malherbe is exceptional at taking that space without even changing his angle.
He’s clever with his bind here too. He uses a high bind to pull the opposition out of the scrum. As soon as they are on the outside and lose hip-connection with their hooker, the scrum is toast. You can see good examples of this in the Springboks win over Wales last weekend.
It’s almost impossible to keep a man of that size and skill from going straight into the hole created.
Frans Malherbe is a big man and has an excellent back five to ‘drive him through the gate’. But he’s importantly a very good technical scrummager and an intelligent one. He doesn’t force things.
He’s happy to wait and control his side until opportunities present themselves. Which is why he very rarely gets himself into trouble. When he is unfit there are opportunities to catch him and put him under pressure, but when he is fit and playing regularly then even the very best looseheads in the world will struggle to give him a bad day.
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