Column: All shapes and sizes

It’s time to stop judging a player such as Frans Malherbe by his body shape, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Over the last few months, I’ve interviewed rugby coaches for a few analysis features on what makes certain players special. As fascinating as the insights on Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am and Cheslin Kolbe were, I must confess to holding out hope to be asked to do a similar story on Frans Malherbe, who gets a lot of stick in the public for not looking like a 21st century prop, as opposed to whether he can scrum or not.

But with the magazine editor – one of those good-looking, blond, blue-eyed chaps who probably owns a surfboard – I’ve consequently been given a succession of, with respect to the above-mentioned World Cup winners, show ponies to run the rule over. As a result, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands by using this column to mount a stout defence (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the big fella.

Maybe because Malherbe comes across as such an unobtrusive sort, one always got the impression the Springboks and Stormers tighthead has never quite been paid his dues despite being one of the better scrummagers in world rugby. The advent of props like Kyle Sinckler, Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane – who have soft hands, a six pack and can dance, respectively – has left guys like Malherbe, who limit their output to scrummaging, lifting in the lineouts, making his tackles and the odd urgent carry, at something of a disadvantage.

It probably doesn’t help that Malherbe, now 29, is a bit of a throwback to when tighthead props took pictures with a live sheep draped over their shoulders like the late Tommie Laubscher did at his farm all those years ago. In a recent chat, Stormers coach John Dobson was poking fun at how whenever his tighthead prop has a weekend off he expects the kudu population in the Northern Cape to be halved because Malherbe would be off hunting.

This goes some way towards explaining why Malherbe, whose dimensions were 1.90m and 123kg at probably his fittest at last year’s World Cup, was a little soft around the edges when he emerged from lockdown, which often led to not-so gentle ribbing about his weight. It’s easy to make fun of Malherbe because he doesn’t mind laughing at himself either. His recent anecdote about his own mother mistaking his doppelganger Pine Pienaar for him by calling the Bulls assistant coach ‘Boetie’ – her nickname for him – showed how he doesn’t take himself seriously.

An awful lot has subsequently been made of how Malherbe doesn’t look like an athlete, what with the modern tight-fitting jerseys not flattering his frame. But tightheads have never been worth their weight in gold for looking particularly svelte or, indeed, for their athleticism.

Although former Springboks conditioning coach Aled Walters anointed him the watt bike king within the Bok team before he left, those aren’t exactly the metrics by which to judge Malherbe. Malherbe’s KPA’s are based on whether his team’s scrum is rock solid or whether he’s suffocating his opposite number enough to milk him for penalties.

England losing Sinckler so early in the piece in last year’s World Cup final means there’s precious little mention of the right side of the Bok scrum in the documentary Chasing the Sun as the preoccupation was with targeting Dan Coles, but Malherbe did more than his fair share of the damage against Mako Vunipola on his side.

And while he may not look it, Malherbe – who put in six tackles in the Boks’ famous two-and-a-half minutes defensive epic in the final –  is possessed with the ‘Superior Discontent’ new Bok coach Jacques Nienaber so loves. Anyone who has had a career-threatening neck injury and still managed to get to almost 100 Super Rugby caps and win a Rugby World Cup has a fair bit of defiance about him. So can we stop judging Malherbe by his skin folds?

*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale