Wilco Louw believes his early introduction to northern-hemisphere scrummaging conditions will aid his development as a Test tighthead, writes JON CARDINELLI in Padua.
It’s fair to say that Louw has made the most of his chances in 2017. The 23-year-old Stormers tighthead started the first Super Rugby match of the season against the Bulls. Eleven months later, and Louw has delivered a game-winning scrummaging performance for Western Province in a Currie Cup final and, more significantly, has played three Tests for South Africa.
Vincent Koch was lost to the Stormers and Boks when he made the decision to move to Saracens last year. The national side suffered further setbacks when Frans Malherbe and, most recently, Coenie Oosthuizen sustained season-ending injuries.
Some felt that a rookie would struggle to hold his own when thrust into a match against the All Blacks, and subsequently into the unforgiving set-piece climes of the northern hemisphere. Louw proved the naysayers wrong, however, and certainly looked the part in the Tests at Newlands, the Aviva Stadium, and the Stade de France.
This Saturday, he is likely to start for the second time as the Boks aim to claim an important win against Italy in Padua.
On Tuesday, Bok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot spoke about the pack’s scrum dominance against France. Proudfoot felt that continuity in selection has allowed the Boks to build some momentum in this area.
Indeed, If Malcom Marx (shoulder) and Eben Etzebeth (leg) shrug off their respective injuries, the Boks will effectively field the same tight-five for the third week in succession (Oosthuizen was stretchered off a few minutes into the game in Dublin).
‘We’ve had five different tightheads in the national team this year,’ noted Proudfoot. ‘This is the longest one tighthead has played and we are seeing growth in the combination. I’ve been proud of Wilco because he’s put his head down and gone as hard as he could.’
Proudfoot said that Louw was bleeding at Tuesday’s session at the Valsagana Rugby Club in Padua. A little blood did nothing to dull the youngster’s competitive edge, though.
‘He stuffed something up his nose and carried on,’ said Proudfoot. ‘That’s the attitude you need from your tighthead. Sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelette.
‘I’m proud of what he’s delivering. On Tuesday, he said to me, “Coach, you’re pretty hard on me”. I said, “The day I stop, you can worry”.’
‘Wilco has taken giant strides,’ he adds. ‘After playing the All Blacks in Cape Town, Ireland in Dublin, and France in Paris, he’s learned a hell of a lot. I was proud of what he and the forwards did at scrum-time last week.
’In my time [Proudfoot represented Scotland in four Tests between 1998 and 2003], a tighthead matured closer to 30. Nowadays, with the amount of rugby they play, they mature at around 25.
‘Continuity helps a youngster’s development. You understand when to lift in the lineout and how guys set the mauls and when they move away from set phases and get into defensive positions. You learn that through repetition. And we’ve had that continuity since the game against the All Blacks in Albany.’
The challenge of playing in the northern hemisphere conditions, however, has forced Louw to ascend to a new level of scrummaging competence.
‘In the Currie Cup, the ball is hooked and it’s out. Up here, it’s more of a challenge,’ Louw said.
‘The scrums last longer. There’s a lot more pressure on you when you’re scrumming against a guy that’s played 50 or 60 Tests. You have to work a lot harder at scrum-time to secure the ball or win a penalty.
‘It’s been good to have a chance to settle in a combination, too. You build confidence when you’re packing down with the same guy at training and in a game situation. You learn how the hooker’s shoulder fits into your shoulder and how you can work together to dominate an opponent.’
Proudfoot said he was pleased to see the players pushing themselves in training on Tuesday. Louw added that the live scrumming sessions provided him with invaluable preparation.
‘The harder I go at a loosehead in a live scrumming situation, and the harder he goes at me, the more prepared I’m going to be for the game on Saturday,’ he said. ‘It’s good to get the timing right in a live situation. The scrum machine doesn’t scrum back. It doesn’t come at you from an angle, like an opposition loosehead may do.’
It’s been an incredible year for the Test rookie, and he’s determined to make the most of the experience on this four-Test tour of Europe.
‘It’s been an unbelievable journey. I have to pinch myself every now and then.
‘I’ve played against New Zealand and in a Currie Cup final. I’ve had the chance to start a Test, and that is the cherry on top in terms of my year.
‘Every day I’m learning from the players next to me and the coaches. Coenie Oosthuizen, Ruan Dreyer and Frans Malherbe have had a lot of knowledge to share. Here in the north, it’s a forwards game. It’s not Currie Cup or Super Rugby. Test rugby is something else.’
Photo: Brendan Moran/Getty Images