Impact areas

Coenie Oosthuizen now has the ability to influence a game with ball in hand and up front, writes MARK KEOHANE.

If you google Coenie Oosthuizen, the most prominent return is his knockout of Hurricanes flanker Jack Lam in a Super Rugby match. Oosthuizen didn’t use any fists but he used all his pace and power to flatten Lam in a collision that wouldn’t be out of place in Jonah Lomu’s best hits collection.

The Cheetahs lost the match, but Oosthuizen scored two tries and was sensational in broken play and with ball in hand.

All the match reports focus on Oosthuizen’s power on the ball. They speak of his skill with the ball, of his goose step and of his explosiveness over 10m. None speak of his scrumming. Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer wants his props to be written about when they scrum, more than when they run.

The ball-in-hand explosiveness is a bonus in Test rugby. The tries are a luxury when scored by props and the goose step … well, props aren’t expected to goose step and they certainly aren’t expected to goose step with success.

Oosthuizen says he can run the 100m in 12 seconds and the 40m in 5.17 seconds. And YouTube clips of him on the run would support these statistics, but when it comes to the Springboks the only statistic that interests Meyer and scrum specialist coach Pieter de Villiers is what Oosthuizen can do at the scrum engagement.

‘He is an X-factor player,’ says Meyer. ‘When I first saw him, I knew he could play rugby. What interested me more was whether he could scrum as a tighthead. There are lots of very good loosehead props in world rugby, but there aren’t that many world-class tighthead props. I felt Coenie had the natural ability to be one of the best looseheads in the game, but I had a gut feeling that with the right coaching he could be developed into one of the best tightheads.’

Meyer selected Oosthuizen in his first Springbok Test squad in 2012 as a prop who could pack down on the loosehead and tighthead. The coach never viewed the selection as a risk but as an investment.

‘I knew it was going to take time and that I had to be patient. I knew he had a lot of work to do technically and that he had to be prepared to learn. I was open with him about what I perceived to be his strengths but I was also honest about the areas I felt were vulnerable; areas of prop play that were non-negotiable: the scrumming, consistency in scrumming and the know-how when it comes to scrumming. He had to learn to live the scrum and to love the scrum.’

'He had to learn to live the scrum and to love the scrum’ – Heyneke Meyer

De Villiers, a South African who played 69 Tests for France, was  tasked with turning Oosthuizen into a prop comfortable wearing the Bok No 1 or No 3 jersey. De Villiers worked on technique but mostly he worked on the player’s understanding of the scrum; of how to work in unison with his hooker, when to go hard at the engage and when to hold the engage.

De Villiers and Meyer also needed to improve the balance in Oosthuizen’s game and ensure his conditioning allowed for the grind of Test match scrumming in the northern hemisphere and the flamboyance of a big man goose stepping and on the charge.

Meyer was reluctant to rush Oosthuizen. It is the Meyer way once he has identified a player.

‘I didn’t want to be looking for a tighthead prop in the World Cup year in 2015,’ says Meyer. ‘I know what a rare commodity quality Test tightheads are in world rugby. I knew we had to develop backup to Jannie du Plessis. I knew Coenie had the capability and he has shown us he certainly has the desire.’

Meyer picked Oosthuizen to start at tighthead against France in Paris in the Springboks’ last international of the 2013 season. Oosthuizen started the evening a Test tighthead apprentice and finished it a Test tighthead.

‘The coaching staff was very pleased with his effort,’ says De Villiers of the victory against his former team.

‘It doesn’t get tougher for a tighthead prop than scrumming against France in France,’ enthuses Meyer. ‘He stood strong. He did his basics and he enjoyed the nuances of the scrum battle. He showed us he has the mentality to scrum against the best in their backyard.’

It was a comforting end to the season for Meyer in an area where few international coaches have a lot of comfort. The apprenticeship may have ended in Paris, but for Meyer the night was the start of a more permanent switch. Oosthuizen is a loosehead who can play tighthead but he is a player Meyer ultimately wants to describe as a tighthead who can also play loosehead.

‘He’s got to earn the right to start at tighthead for the Cheetahs and the more he plays there, the better his understanding will be,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the game’s hardest positions to master but he has the X factor; he can do it.’

– This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine