We talk to the Stormers and Springboks tighthead about scrums, destiny and perspective
The power of Frans Malherbe
“Lood de Jager once said, if there wasn’t the position tighthead, I wouldn’t be playing rugby!” laughs Frans Malherbe on the way out of a physio session at the Stormers base. The man, you could suggest, is the prop’s prop.
With his franchise heading into a United Rugby Championship’s quarter-finals – a play-off position in the Cape Town side’s first year in the competition proper – much focus has been put on the set-piece and how visitors Edinburgh can match up there. And as Scotland loosehead Pierre Schoeman has put it this week, “Frans Malherbe gets paid the big bucks because he’s a good tighthead.”
But as the 46-cap Bok prop tells Rugby World, this life as a revered front-rower wasn’t exactly what he envisioned as a kid. Growing up in Bredasdorp, he was certain his path led all the way back to the family’s sheep and grain farm. The Malherbes no longer run that business but regardless, after being roped in to make up the numbers at school one day, that was it, Frans’s destiny grabbed a handful of jersey and squeezed.
But the notion of being fated to play a certain position is interesting on this particular week. It turns out Malherbe, like us, read with interest the interview retiring Tom Wood gave to The Telegraph, in which he voiced concerns that “you’re making everybody into the same sort of cyborg of a player” and that there could become a cookie-cutter rugby player shape in years to come.
“It’s interesting,” Malherbe begins of Wood’s fear. “I think he mentioned in his article fat props! But I think the game moves on and what the game demands, you need to be able to keep up with that.
“I think certain positions will automatically come closer to each other, if that makes sense. As the game gets faster, you have to run more, you have to react more with more metres in your legs, and still scrumming. I think that’s where the trick comes in. You still need to do the scrumming and the mauling stuff. Then the demand on the running side and where you need to be on the field. It’s a balance between those two things.”
Malherbe is considered a master of his craft by so many who love forward play and was entrusted to start at No 3 in a Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks side in 2019. So where does he see himself in that equation?
He replies: “Obviously my job is to scrum well, and to be effective in the lineouts and then, obviously, you need to fit into the plan…” He reels off an endearingly modest answer so maybe a refocus is necessary. What about if you are really, really good at that primary job though?
“Well if a prop plays well in the loose and he can’t scrum, I don’t think he’ll get picked.
“That’s the first and most important thing, in my opinion. Obviously, you’re going to get scrums where you will not be dominant and we’re not going forward and the other pack wins. That’s gonna happen. But I mean, the emphasis must be on your first job, your job that’s specifically for you.”
We have a tendency sometimes to turn our talk of scrums into cartoons: that pack on Saturday is the better one; they should be on top every time; they should win a boatload of penalties. But as Malherbe discusses, in his head he carries the ghosts of awful scrums – as all the best props do – because you learn more from the hidings than if you are forever going forward. And anyway, in a melee of 16 bodies, if you throw something at someone “you then get a counter-force.” Top teams do not lie down.
Off the back of Wood’s words, you could also dive into discussions of body image. But genuinely, if you’re doing the job, who cares? At the blade-dulling end of the elite game, where immovable objects lie in the path of every unstoppable force, you just want to pick the players who get it done.
In a recent column for the Daily Mail, Boks boss Rassie Erasmus wrote: “In my eyes, seeing the fatties dominate a scrum is just as beautiful as watching Cheslin Kolbe or Finn Russell.”
It’s a sentiment Malherbe takes in and appreciates, but again pragmatically adds that the difficulty comes because “it’s not a given that if you have a good pack that they’re gonna go forward.”
Do it more often than most, though, and your value is undeniable.
Malherbe has had niggles to contend with, only starting five times in the URC this season, but he is enthused about what lies ahead. The Stormers will play in the Heineken Champions Cup next season, and have flown into these play-offs. Yet while the franchise have always had talented personnel, in years gone by they have fallen short. The 31-year-old cannot put his finger on what precisely has clicked in-house recently, but he hazards that the team now strike a good balance between having a go from the back and making pragmatic decisions.
A recent serious neck injury also affords Malherbe a bit more perspective. It could all be over so quickly. So he ponders what he would like to happen in the short term.
“It’s a difficult question,” the tighthead begins. “We’re in a play-off now for the URC and I’d like to end the season where the Stormers can be proud of ourselves. Then there’s a Springboks squad announcement when the last South African team exits the URC. Obviously I would love to be a part of that. Then just take it from there.
“I don’t like to look too far ahead. Next year is a World Cup year, so obviously it’s a dream to be a part of that. And then there’s next year’s URC and the Champions Cup which is very exciting. I don’t know how the logistics of that look – where we play and when – but it’s very exciting. And then there’s the World Cup, so a lot to play for.
“To be honest I haven’t looked any further than that.”
A life in agriculture after rugby still has its appeal. He also wants to stay in rugby, somehow.
Malherbe says there are no concrete plans for the post-playing future. But in the recent years, the Stormers and Boks have made it integral having Malherbe as part of their foundations. Edinburgh are all too aware.
Stormers v Edinburgh kicks off at 6pm on Saturday 4 June.
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