Steven Kitshoff wants to start more Tests for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘Is that true? You’ve never started a Test before?’ Matt Proudfoot asked Steven Kitshoff as the Springbok forwards coach and the loosehead prop – who at that stage had 18 caps to his name – sat at the top table of a press conference held before the clash against the All Blacks at Newlands.
Kitshoff was asked by a local reporter if he was satisfied with his lot as an impact player for the Boks. Before the 25-year-old could respond, Proudfoot turned to him and asked two questions that, upon later reflection, may well have served as a statement to the greater rugby public: The Boks cannot keep a talent like Kitshoff on the bench forever.
The debate regarding who should start at loosehead prop was put on hold when Beast Mtawarira – who has been at the forefront of the South African scrummaging effort for the past nine years – withdrew from the Test against the All Blacks due to personal reasons. Kitshoff was given the opportunity to start at Newlands, a ground he called home during his first stint with the Stormers between 2011 and 2015.
Hooker Malcolm Marx was rightly praised in the aftermath of the narrow 25-24 loss to the All Blacks. Kitshoff’s powerful set-piece and gainline performance – the loosehead made 84m with his 15 carries over the course of 78 minutes – didn’t go unnoticed, though.
‘Our forwards set the tone up front against the No 1 team in world rugby,’ Bok coach Allister Coetzee said afterwards. ‘Malcolm delivered an amazing performance. Steven also made the most of his starting opportunity and showed his class around the field.
‘We have some great young players who are coming through and holding their own on the big stage. Heading into the 2019 World Cup, we will be identifying world-class players with the aim of developing a squad that is capable of doing well in Japan. Malcolm and Steven definitely proved themselves to be two world-class players [against the All Blacks].’
Kitshoff is still buzzing when SA Rugby magazine catches up with him three weeks later.
‘There was a lot of emotion in the buildup to that game; a lot of stress,’ he admits. ‘Things changed, though, when I ran out on to the field. I was able to focus on the task at hand. Getting a first Test start on my home ground was very special. Apart from the result, I was happy with my own performance and glad the game shaped up the way it did. As a pack, we can take a lot out of that performance.
‘The New Zealanders are great scrummagers,’ he adds. ‘Their teams always look to dominate. In the 2011 Super Rugby semi-final between the Stormers and Crusaders, I came off the bench in the second half. I had a tough time scrumming against All Blacks tighthead Owen Franks and was a bit relieved to see him subbed five minutes later. It didn’t get any easier for me, though, when Ben Franks was introduced to the front row. That was a challenge for me, and to be honest, it was always tough scrumming against the Franks brothers.’
Kitshoff was one of the standout players when SA U20 beat their New Zealand counterparts to win the 2012 Junior World Championship title on the same ground. Kitshoff, who was already a regular feature for the Stormers at that early stage of his career, was tipped for greatness, as were some of his SA U20 teammates: Handré Pollard, Jan Serfontein and Pieter-Steph du Toit, to name a few.
Kitshoff smiles when he’s asked to recall that campaign as well as his breakout year with the Stormers. Since then, he’s played
60 Super Rugby games and has won a Currie Cup title with Western Province (in 2012).
He recently returned to the Cape-based union after spending two years with French club Bordeaux-Bègles.
That said, the loosehead prop has significantly fewer Test caps than some of the players – Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Frans Malherbe – who began their professional careers around the same time.
‘I’ve realised a lot of the goals I set for myself since that 2012 campaign,’ he says. ‘But I’m not done yet. I feel I have a lot more to prove.
‘It’s been an amazing journey. Coming through the Western Province ranks and then getting a chance to play Super Rugby in my first year out of school was unbelievable. Allister Coetzee and Matt Proudfoot gave me the opportunity to play at a young age, and I owe them a lot for having such faith in me.
‘I’ve walked a long road with some of those players and it has made a difference in terms of my own development,’ he adds. ‘Eben has been my mate for the past seven years. We’ve been playing together since our Craven Week days. All of them have had my back from day one. Whatever happens on the field, I know they will be there to back me up. That fills me with confidence.’
Kitshoff was overlooked by then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer between 2012 and 2015. He accepted an offer by Bordeaux and travelled to Europe in 2015 with the aim of broadening his horizons.
‘My fiancee Amy and I were out there on our own for two years. We travelled as much as we could. We really embraced the red-wine culture in Bordeaux. I couldn’t teach the locals much about the wine in the Western Cape. I did teach them a few choice Afrikaans words, though,’ he jokes.
‘The move was all about gaining experience and taking myself out of my comfort zone. The plan was to spend a few years in France. The whole time I was there, I kept that dream of returning to South Africa and the Stormers in the back of my mind.’
It took some time for a player conditioned to the pace of Super Rugby to adapt to the power game of the French Top 14. Kitshoff was handed a few painful lessons by comparative front-row giants – like Pau’s Georgian tighthead Giorgi Natsarashvili, who is 1.90m and 126kg – in the early days of his European club sojourn.
‘I fronted up to Georgians and Romanians, players you see when you watch the Top 14 on TV but never think you will actually have the chance to play against. That forced me to learn new skills. I feel I’m a better Test player for the lessons I learned in Europe.
‘There’s a different scrummaging culture up north. Each Top 14 side invests a lot of time and energy into their set piece on a weekly basis. I went into that environment with around 50 Super Rugby caps. I didn’t think it would be that different. I got a big surprise.
‘I was up against massive tightheads week after week. It was a first for me, going up against direct opponents of that size. The collective weight of the opposing packs was unbelievable. It took a while to adapt. I scrummed against bigger props, stronger props; props so big and strong they weren’t expected to do much more than scrum over the course of the game.
‘The management of the scrum was different, too. If the scrum collapsed, the ref allowed play to continue. It was a different world compared to that of Super Rugby. I’m a better player for having experienced it.’
Kitshoff thought he was sacrificing a chance to represent the Boks when he moved to France. Then he got a call from Coetzee in early-2016 after the latter had been appointed Bok coach.
‘That meant the world to me,’ he says. ‘I grew up dreaming of playing for the Boks. I never got the chance to do so before I went to France. Yho, I was thrilled when Allister called me back and gave me the opportunity to realise my dream. He kept backing me [by selecting Kitshoff in the match-day squad], and I’m grateful for that.’
The Boks departed for Europe recently with a squad that included three loosehead props. South Africa should travel to the next World Cup with as many options and, providing there are no serious injury setbacks, Mtawarira and Kitshoff should feature in the match-day squad in the big matches.
‘Os du Randt was one of my biggest heroes,’ Kitshoff says. ‘When I got to high school, I was following Beast’s career with interest. Outside the Boks, I felt Andrew Sheridan was one of the great looseheads.
‘Beast leads by example,’ Kitshoff says of his relationship with the Bok veteran, who should win his 100th Test cap in the 2018 season. ‘I learn a lot by watching him every day. I have a lot of respect for him. His worth ethic is amazing and is something I look to emulate.’
So is Kitshoff content with his lot as an impact player, or does he prefer to start, as he did with some success against the All Blacks at Newlands?
‘There are two different mindsets,’ he says. ‘If you start, you have the opportunity to settle. You have the opportunity to build momentum and set the tone. It’s different when you come off the bench. There’s no time to settle. You have to make an impact and give absolutely everything because there’s only 20 or so minutes left in the game. At the end, you’re just as tired as the players who started and played the whole match.
‘I’m happy to be involved in the squad on a regular basis. I was thrilled with how things went in my first start against the All Blacks. I will look to build on that. I’m hoping for more starts in future. Until I receive those opportunities, I will keep on working.’
Many remarked on the success of Kitshoff, Marx and Ruan Dreyer as a front-row combination in that Test against the All Blacks. Immediately after the game, Kitshoff described Marx as his ‘boytjie’ and revealed that the pair share a special relationship on and off the field. Kitshoff feels this bodes well for a young side building towards the next World Cup.
‘Malcolm and I have become great friends. Ruan is also a good mate. Together, Malcolm and Ruan have been scrumming well for the Lions. I’m slotting in and adapting to the unique style they have as a scrumming unit. That’s what scrumming is about, bringing a couple of styles together to produce something special. Hopefully we’ll grow as a combination and create something unique, something that will put opposition teams under pressure. The scrum is a big part of the game. You don’t want to concede momentum in that area.
‘I’ve always had big dreams for my career,’ he adds. ‘Playing in a World Cup, possibly even in the next two World Cups, is at the top of my to-do list. Obviously I have to keep improving to ensure I make the squad in two years’ time.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine