Frans Malherbe has demonstrated that professional players don’t have to fit a specific mould to master their craft, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Frans Malherbe doesn’t give many interviews. A tighthead prop from the old school, he believes actions speak louder than words. While some critics judge athletes by their appearance, coaches assess players by performances and results.
Consider how Rassie Erasmus ignored the criticism of Malherbe in 2019 and backed the 125kg prop as the first-choice No 3 in the lead-up to the World Cup.
‘I have so much respect for that guy,’ Aled Walters told SA Rugby magazine after the Springboks won the 2019 World Cup in Japan. The head of athletic performance joined Erasmus’ management team in early 2018 with a mandate to boost South Africa’s strength and conditioning levels. He singled out Malherbe as one of the Boks’ hardest workers and ultimately one of the unsung heroes.
‘Some people judge Frans by his appearance to determine whether he is fit or not. I challenge anyone to tell me that he didn’t do a great job at the World Cup,’ Walters said.
‘Frans was vital in the maul and our scrum was terrific. He never missed a tackle and he was incredibly accurate at the breakdown. Forget what some people said about him and what he should look like. He was a machine.
‘I hope he gets some credit because he was awesome at the World Cup. He was unbelievably fit for what he needed to do: which was scrum, maul, tackle and give the team great width on defence.’
A year later, some people continued to question Malherbe’s value because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a modern prop. When the Stormers emerged from lockdown in late September and a picture of Malherbe was posted on social media, some went as far as to question the player’s commitment to the cause.
Many people, however, defended Malherbe and asked the critics to judge the player by his performances.
‘This is how Frans looked in 2018-2019 and he put in world-class performances for the Boks,’ one fan tweeted, before comparing the South African strongman to another cult figure from the Dragon Ball Z universe. ‘I’m not worried about him at all. The Majin Buu of tighthead props, consuming loosehead props in his wake.’
The Stormers fired in patches over the course of the Super Rugby Unlocked tournament, but their scrum was a constant threat.
The World Cup-winning front row of Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Malherbe terriorised opponents at this set piece throughout the competition. All three were subsequently named in sarugbymag.co.za‘s Team of the Tournament.
Malherbe tells SA Rugby magazine that he’s never stopped working for a chance to represent the Stormers and the Boks. A long struggle with injuries during the early stages of his career has forced him to treat every opportunity as if it’s his last.
Malherbe was the first-choice tighthead at the 2015 World Cup, and enjoyed a consistent run with the national side between 2018 and 2019. A closer look at his stats confirms he’s played 38 Tests since joining the wider Bok squad in late 2012. Eben Etzebeth, who made his debut that season and has suffered few setbacks since, has gone on to win 85 Test caps.
So no, Malherbe doesn’t see any reason to rest on his laurels at this point. He wants to use the Currie Cup and Pro16 tournaments to impress the national selectors and to feature in the series against the British & Irish Lions.
‘I understand that criticism is part of the game,’ he says when asked about the unkind comments made on social media at the start of the domestic season. ‘It’s never nice to see that kind of stuff, but you can’t ignore absolutely everything that’s being said.
‘I went to the World Cup last year confident I could perform my role, and my coaches and teammates were confident in my ability to perform that role. That’s what mattered most to me – not what was being said on the outside.
‘It was the same at the start of this season,’ he adds. ‘You put your head down and you get to work. You get one positive result. Then two. You keep working and suddenly people who criticised you start to see that you can make a positive contribution. The critics start to revise their opinion of you.
‘I’m willing to take criticism on board if it will make me a better player. If someone is criticising my technique and performance, and if they have a valid point, I will have to consider making a change.’
Malherbe reflects on his journey and how it’s shaped his work ethic.
At the age of 21 in 2012, he was set to debut against the All Blacks in 2012 until an injury robbed him of the chance. He hurt his ankle after making his Test debut in 2013 and then broke his leg the following season. After the 2015 World Cup, Malherbe suffered two serious neck injuries.
‘I was very low in 2016 and 2017,’ he says. ‘I played all three Tests at home against Ireland, then missed the rest of the season. I thought things were getting better for me when I played against France in June 2017, but I broke down again and was out of rugby for a long time.
‘You have to accept that injuries are part of the package. I look back now after the consistent run I had in 2018 and 2019, and I’m grateful I haven’t been sidelined with a serious injury for an extended period. I’m also glad I didn’t give up after those setbacks early in my career.’
The Boks were spoilt for choice at tighthead when Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee as head coach in early 2018. Trevor Nyakane and Wilco Louw featured regularly for South Africa in 2017. Thomas du Toit and Vincent Koch were tipped to play a significant role in the new regime. Erasmus, however, put his faith in Malherbe from the outset.
‘I had been sidelined with a neck injury for almost a year, so I was determined to get back on to the field for the Stormers and to get my game time up during Super Rugby,’ Malherbe recalls. ‘It was tough, but I kept working and Rassie included me in the squad for the England series.
‘There were a lot of great props in the mix at that stage and I knew that Vincent Koch was being spoken about as an option after enjoying a great season for Saracens. So I got to work. Rassie left me out of the first Test in Johannesburg but kept his word to start me in the second in Bloem.
‘I thought, OK, they’re backing me, I know where I stand. At the same time I knew there were four or five guys fighting for that position. I couldn’t stop working or trying to improve every week.’
Fast forward to the World Cup in Japan, where the Bok forwards set the platform for a title-clinching victory against England. Beast Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi received most of the plaudits, but Malherbe certainly made a key contribution on the tighthead side of the scrum.
Mtawarira said afterwards that the intense scrummaging sessions staged during training prepared the pack to fire in the latter stages of the World Cup. Malherbe reveals what it was like to pack down against Mtawarira and Kitshoff during that period.
‘The live scrummaging sessions we had were brutal,’ he says. ‘The coaches would mix it up, rotating players and combinations. Going up against Beast or Kitsie every week is no picnic. They’re coming at you with everything they have, trying new things. It forces you to adapt and improve, as you often have to do in a game. We learned a lot from each other, just in training.
‘So much was made about the Bomb Squad and I think the success of the team was down to how the squad trained against each other every week. Every session, it was two big packs going full tilt at each other. On game day, the starting players would empty the tank as we knew the replacements were good enough to get the job done in the second half.’
Malherbe is at his most animated when he recounts the scrum battle against England in the World Cup final.
‘Everything came together on that occasion. I have to mention the back five. They don’t get enough credit. As a front ranker, you need the support of the men behind you to make an impact at the scrum. I always knew a guy like Eben, who packed directly behind me, had my back. That was the kind of unit we were. We came out firing, and then continued to gather momentum over the contest.
‘Beast … what a way to make a statement in his final game for the Boks,’ Malherbe adds. ‘If you look at his career, he’s had so much success, but what stands out is that he made a game-shaping impact in the big Tests – such as the first Test against the Lions in 2009 and the World Cup final against England in 2019.’
Will Malherbe leave the same kind of legacy? He played a key role for the Boks in their successful Rugby Championship and World Cup campaigns in 2019. He was one of the heroes for South Africa when they hammered England on an unforgettable night in Yokohama.
He will be 30 and at the peak of his front-row powers when the Lions arrive next year. What kind of impact can we expect from Malherbe in that series?
‘We have to control the controllables,’ he says. The Boks didn’t play Test rugby in 2020, and will have a relatively low-key buildup to the Lions series. It’s yet to be confirmed whether South Africa will host any international friendlies in early 2021.
‘We have to prepare and ensure we are ready for when that Lions challenge is staring us in the face,’ Malherbe continues. ‘If I talk about scrumming, it’s not something that’s the same from one game to the next. You’re constantly learning, constantly trying to evolve, and you’re aware that the opposition is constantly coming up with new plans to dominate and disrupt you.
‘The Lions will bring a monster pack to South Africa. They will target the scrum. It’s going to be a great battle, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure I’m right there in the middle of it.’
From there, Malherbe’s actions rather than his words will pick up the story. He wouldn’t have it any other way.