Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 3s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
The start of my rugby-writing career dovetailed with two of the most charismatic tighthead props I would ever get to know in the late Tommy Laubscher and the very much alive Keith Andrews.
The Western Province and Springbok duo couldn’t have been more different as people, but they couldn’t have been more similar when it came to how people gravitated towards their respective personalities.
Andrews, cousin of Springbok lock Mark, is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and is a director at Personal Trust. His expertise is tax and financial and estate planning. He is a very clever man, but the most likeable you can ever hope to meet.
For someone who has achieved so much and excelled in whatever he has done, there isn’t a bloke with more humility. And, my goodness, he has a great sense of humour and a wonderful turn of phrase.
Andrews, the rugby player, was from a different era and a generation so far removed from the sanitized professional rugby environment of today. He had an amazing personality. Ditto, Laubscher.
Andrews was a tighthead converted from flank. He was a mobile loose-forward, but his club and provincial coaches in the Western Cape also saw his potential to be an international frontrower, more than a Test loose-forward.
I was a prop in my early days at De Kuilen primary in Kuilsriver, but in essence I was a flyhalf carrying around a tubby prop’s body as a 10 and 11 year-old. I played loosehead and tighthead and hated every moment of it. I just wanted to be wearing a No 10 jersey, doing the kicking and spreading the ball. My hands were quick with ball in hand, but my scrumming was non-existent. I hated every engagement, feared for the disfiguration of my ears and took an Australian approach to the scrum. It was a restart for me, but unfortunately for those I scrummed against it was where the game started and stopped. My memories of my prop days were simply getting monstered at set piece and the lasting image is of being headbutted early on in the game and not knowing where I was.
Imagine this 11 year-old sharing with the referee, who happened to be our coach, that he was struggling to see the opposition. The coach asked me what the problem was and I said that it looked like three guys running at me with the ball. His response was for me to relax and just tackle the one in the middle. I played the rest of the game aiming any tackle for what I perceived to be the oke in the middle.
Ah, my prop days were very short but seemed eternal at the time. The puppy fat went in my second year of high school and the flyhalf in me physically finally emerged. It was in the No 10 jersey that I stayed for the rest of my school playing days at Fairmont High in Durbanville and under 21s when playing for WP Police.
I loved playing flyhalf but I never lost my respect and admiration for those wearing the No 1 and No 3 jerseys.
Who knows what goes on in that front row, but those in the front row?
As a reporter I used to hate having to rate a prop’s performance. Editors and the public loved the rating system out of 10. It was always a popular and contentious read. I never bought into its validity or integrity because for an effective rating of each player, you’d basically have to focus all your attention just on that one player. It was easier to have make a general assessment on the backs, loose-forwards and locks because of the nature of the position, but prop and hooker? The only way you’d know how good the props had played was to ask their teammates, to ask the opposition props and hookers and then ask the props themselves. The latter question wasn’t necessary because I also never met a prop who thought he had a bad game, got scrummed or didn’t make the biggest hits.
In 1996 I interviewed the Transvaal and 1995 World Cup-winning prop Balie Swart for a Sports Illustrated article on being a prop in professional rugby. I was on tour with the Transvaal team in the first year of Super Rugby.
The magazine editor wanted a feature discussing the position and also the safety aspects around being a prop. The article was supposed to allay any fears among parents that their little oke would get hurt playing prop.
Swart told some great anecdotes about his tutorship as a prop. He spoke of the strength of former Western Province and Springbok front rowers Henning van Aswegen and Hempies du Toit and how much he learned from them as a youngster playing senior rugby.
Swart told me when he played at Silvermine in the Western Cape in a top of the table clash between Stellenbosch University (Maties) and WP Defence. He said he remembered starting the game, getting knocked out and then the halftime whistle.
He had survived the first half courtesy of his fellow forwards, as they all took turns to link arms with Swart after every scrum and run him to the next breakdown. The lock and hooker would also keep him propped up before the scrum engagement and then the support runners would again do their job in trotting him to the next point of contact.
By the second half, said Swart, he was back in real time and conscious of the scrum engagement.
Swart spoke of the brotherhood of the props club and stressed how difficult it was to explain to anyone else what exactly went on at the scrum and at the bottom of rucks. He described playing prop as a game within a game known only to those who played that game.
When I asked him if there was a special initiation to the prop’s club he said emphatically yes: ‘You get FUCKED up!’
The safety element in my Sports Illustrated feature was no more.
Swart played in the era of Andrews and Laubscher. They were once teammates before Swart moved from Western Province to Transvaal and there wasn’t much love between the three. The 1995 World Cup coach Kitch Christie picked Swart ahead of Laubscher and Andrews as a tighthead, who could also cover loosehead.
Laubscher never let anyone forget that he felt it was the wrong decision and he finally got the chance to make his point when the World Cup-winning Transvaal players took on Western Province in the 1995 Currie Cup at Newlands.
There were 11 World Cup-winning players in the Transvaal line-up and the aggrieved in the Province team saw it as an opportunity to play their own World Cup final.
Laubscher, pre the match, told the media: ‘We’ve seen him (Swart) scrum in da (sic) World Cup, but can he scrum in da (sic) Currie Cup?’ Apparently not, because Laubscher would triumph individually and Western Province would comfortably win the match.
Laubscher was a classic and by all accounts one of the strongest scrummagers. The rest of his game wasn’t quite as effective, but in the early 1990s tighthead props were only expected to be able to scrum. Anything else was a bonus.
And scrum he did.
When Western Province played Northern Transvaal, Laubscher would oppose a very talented up and coming prop in Pierre Ribbens. The northern media spoke of the young bull going to Cape Town to teach the old bull a lesson. Pity poor Ribbens.
Laubscher put on a scrum masterclass and afterwards told the media: ‘The challenge wasn’t to scrum him but to keep him in the air.’ For props that is the ultimate put down.
When Ribbens was told of Laubscher’s comments, he responded in Afrikaans: ‘Oom Tommy is ‘n Meneer. Hy mag so se.’ It doesn’t quite translate to English with the same intensity, but in summary the young bull was merely confirming he had been schooled by the old bull.
Laubscher was a character and among his highlights was the post-match Currie Cup evening in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. The years were 1992 and 1993 and payment for match day came in the shape of cash in a brown envelope. Laubscher would always dress in all-black when hitting the ‘town’ and his night would start with a counting of the match day fees. He would position himself at the bar, show us the envelope, count out an amount, put it back in the envelope and declare that was ‘for home and for the wife … and the rest was for tonight’.
Laubscher wore black and called himself Zorro, in reference to his mastery as a swordsman. You read into that what you will.
Laubscher and Andrews proved as popular on the Western Province 1992 tour of Australia and New Zealand, which was among my favourite rugby tours.
I loved those early years of writing rugby because of the matches and the after-match socializing. If a player had an issue with you as a rugby writer, he addressed it with you in the pub that night, and my experience was the player only took issue if he thought you had written rubbish, didn’t have a clue about his position or had got personal in attacking his character. If he had played poorly, he accepted it would read that way the next day.
The props, as individuals, were positions to tread lightly when having to finish a 1000-word match report on the final whistle.
When it came to writing about props and reporting on them, I relied on the opinions of their coaches, teammates, props who had played at that level and, of course, the opposition. There is honour in the front row club and if a prop felt he took a beating in the scrum, then he’d be the first to acknowledge the efforts of his opposite number.
The scrum potency of a tighthead isn’t as simple as him being stronger or technically more proficient than the loosehead, and the collective of who is scrumming as the blindside lock and blindside flank can emphasise the strength of the tighthead or negate the power because of who is scrumming behind the loosehead.
Tighthead prop play has radically evolved as the game has changed. In many ways it is unfair to compare the prop from 1992 to the one from 2020 because so much more is asked of tighthead props in 2020, in the way they play and also in their conditioning.
Laubscher, as one example, would never go to a gym to develop what he would have called ‘tupperware muscles’. His strength came from his daily job as a sheep farmer. The power was natural.
Clinton van der Berg, a colleague who worked for the Sunday Times, and now the head of communications at SuperSport, interviewed Laubscher at his farm in Vredenburg.
Van der Berg wanted a picture of Tommy holding a sheep in each arm, but the one sheep, said Van der Berg, was restless and moving all the time. Laubscher eventually had enough, dropped both, picked up the one, knocked it out, lifted the senseless sheep above his head and then posed with the knocked out one.
Laubscher would play 43 matches for Boland, 100 for Western Province and six Tests for the Springboks in 1993 and 1994. He died tragically at 43, just a month before his 44th birthday, an occasion he had told friends would be his 4×4 party.
He was killed in a freak accident on the road between Velddrif and Piketberg on the Cape’s West Coast.
Laubscher, in the early hours of the morning, had pulled over to help a motorist who had hit a cow in the heavy mist. While helping, a bakkie coming from the opposite direction hit the stranded vehicle and crashed into Laubscher, killing him instantly.
Laubscher, when I reflected on Springbok tighthead props, simply had to be there. Equally, Andrews, whose Test career was limited to nine appearances between 1992 and 1994, but his first-class career of 147 matches for Western Province would be immense.
South African rugby and the Springboks, between 1992 and 2020, have had so many outstanding tighthead props, many of whom would be regarded as among the game’s elite when at their peak.
Swart won a World Cup in 1995 and his most famous quote came after the semi-final win against France in Durban. South Africa had one final scrum to secure the ball to win the semi-final. It was five metres from the Boks tryline and Kobus Wiese told Swart that the scrum could go sideways but it was never going to go backwards. It proved to be the most important scrum of Swart’s career. The scrum only ever went forward.
Marius Hurter enjoyed a decent cameo playing for the Springboks and in a recent SuperSport interview, published on SA Rugby Magazine’s digital platforms, the 2007 World Cup-winning hooker John Smit rated his best frontrowers in the professional era.
Smit would play 111 Tests for the Springboks and captain them 64 times. He also made 46 successive Test appearances. He played primarily at hooker but also played loosehead prop and in his final three seasons also packed down as a tighthead. Smit’s career as an all-round frontrower is unrivalled. Very few can play one, two and three.
Smit highlighted the qualities of Adrian Garvey and singled out the 2019 World Cup-winning Bok tightheads Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch. Smit had special praise for Trevor Nyakane, who was injured early in the World Cup.
Smit joked that if a tighthead prop did anything more than scrum, he was ‘phenomenal’ and he picked Nyakane as the best to wear the No 3 jersey. He said Nyakane, originally a loosehead prop, could scrum, had a good work rate and was a decent defender. He also said Nyakane was good at ‘stealing ball at the breakdown’ and, working in tandem with a loose-forward like Duane Vermeulen and hooker Bismarck du Plessis, would make a massive impact.
Maybe age does dull the senses or it could have been because of time constraints, but I was surprised that Smit didn’t make mention of the two tighthead props who played alongside him in the World Cup-winning 2007 campaign. BJ Botha, a teammate at the Sharks, was the starting tighthead prop at the 2007 World Cup but got injured before the semi-finals. Botha would play for Ulster and Munster in the last eight years of his career and was named in the fans’ all-time Munster match-day 23.
Van der Linde was also huge and his versatility meant he was of that rare breed of prop, who could play international rugby as a loosehead or tighthead. Van der Linde played 75 Tests, starting 39, and while he isn’t my choice as the starting No 3 in my #DreamTeam, he will feature among the substitutes.
Jannie du Plessis was another player Smit didn’t mention, but his name has come up often in the past months among fans when selecting their best ever Springbok teams.
Du Plessis, the brother of Bismarck, played 70 Tests and was rewarded for his consistency with 58 Test starts.
Cobus Visage was exceptional for Western Province, the Stormers and Saracens and he was a tighthead who never went back in a scrum. His all-round game wasn’t as good as the very best tightheads, but technically he was astute and strong. Visagie was also a student of tighthead play, as much as he was a master.
He studied the game, had a theory on every scrum engagement and was very vocal that no referee had a clue as to what happened on the engagement. There was a joke among Visagie’s teammates that you never wanted to get stuck in a lift with him because all he would talk about was prop play.
There have been a few ‘Neville Nobody’s’ to have worn the Bok No 3 jersey during my 28 years writing about the Springboks and there have been those tighthead props who made headlines for the wrong reasons. Johan le Roux, with the infamous bite of Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear in 1994, is one example. Le Roux played only three Tests in 1994 but he was the rock in the Transvaal pack for many seasons.
Guy Kebble’s potential was huge, but his Test career was limited to four caps in 1994.
The Bulls’s Richard Bands was a popular character with the Bulls and Springboks and he scored the best individual Bok prop Test try I’ve seen, in what proved to be my last Test with the Springboks in 2003. Bands ran 40 metres at Carisbrook, Dunedin, and gave All Blacks flyhalf Carlos Spencer the biggest of ‘do as you are told’ handoffs in scoring the super try.
Bands is the type of prop who would have been perfect for the game in the early 1990s.
(BJ) Botha, had he stayed in South Africa and played Test rugby, would have challenged for my vote and Nyakane will still make an even bigger statement as he adds to his 42 Tests in the cycle leading into the 2023 World Cup.
The prop who impressed me the most with his all-round contribution and his ability to more than hold his own in the scrum was Zimbabwean-born Adrian Garvey.
Garvey, who played 10 Tests for Zimbabwe between 1990 and 1993, including the 1991 World Cup, played 28 Tests for the Springboks from 1996 to 1999, and many a match for the Sharks.
Garvey has the distinction of never losing to the All Blacks, although he only played twice against the New Zealanders, but his winning record (86 percent) is second only to Morne du Plessis’s for those who have played 20 or more Tests.
I never heard a bad word spoken about Garvey, from his teammates or the opposition. He was just one of those guys who got on with the job and put the team above all else.
He was integral to the Boks when they won 17 Tests in succession and he would play his final Test (against Spain) at the 1999 World Cup after making his debut against the Ivory Coast for Zimbabwe in 1990.
The counter to selecting Garvey would be in questioning his scrumming power, but in my #DreamTeam Garvey props down with the bulk of Bakkies Botha and Andre Venter behind him. I can guarantee you no loosehead who has ever played the game is going to buckle Garvey with that duo in support.
My choice of best Springboks tighthead since 1992 is Garvey.
WATCH: A TRIBUTE TO GARVEY
Internationally, I’d have had to have access to players from other countries consistently to understand who they rated and why.
The South African players were the ones I did engage with on overseas tightheads though, and often the answer was whoever played in an Italian, Argentinean and French front row was good, very good or exceptional. Those three countries didn’t produce average front rowers. Many props have played for these countries in the last 28 years, but the stand outs have been Nicolas Mas, Christian Califano and Franck Tournaire (all France) and Patricio Noriega, who played for Argentina and Australia. Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni is a name that always found its way into conversation, while Wales’s Adam Jones and England’s Jason Leonard are spoken about for different reasons as tightheads. Jones was the first pick for Wales for a decade and Leonard showed his class in playing tighthead in a stunning British & Irish Lions win against the All Blacks in Wellington in 1993. Leonard would play his rugby primarily as one of the best loosehead props in a career of 119 Tests. More of him when I talk looseheads.
New Zealand’s strong men at No 3 were Olo Brown, Kees Meeuws, Carl Hayman and Owen Franks and England regularly produce world class tightheads. Phil Vickery, combined with Leonard, as an England regular fixture in the front row and, of the modern generation, Kyle Sinckler, is destined for bigger recognition in the next four years. Julian White was a strength in his 51 Tests and Dan Cole is very respected.
Australia’s Ewen McKenzie was highly rated but often South African players would be dismissive of the virtues of anyone in the Wallabies front row. Sekope Kepu, a veteran of 100-plus Tests, was the exception to the perception of powder puff Australian props.
Ireland’s Paul Wallace troubled Os du Randt in the 1997 series with his awkward scrum technique, especially because he could get in and under Du Randt’s much taller frame and of late Tadhg Furlong has been a menace to opposition.
Samoa’s Census Johnstone retired in 2020 having played 400 first-class matches, which included 60 Tests and 222 games for French club Toulouse. He was very skilled.
All Black Hayman, who gave up Test rugby after 48 Tests and played more than 100 matches for the Toulon side that conquered Europe in three successive seasons is there with Johnstone in my top three, but my #DreamTeam World XV tighthead is South African-born Pieter de Villiers, who left South Africa as a 20 year-old to experience travel and culture in Europe and ended up playing 69 Tests for his adopted country between 1999 and 2007.
De Villiers would be part of the French 2007 quarter-final team that dumped the All Blacks out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals in Cardiff and he would also lose just twice in eight Tests against the Springboks.
The performance that will always stand out for me was against the Boks at Newlands in 2006. De Villiers’s brother in the days before the Test, had taken his own life. De Villiers insisted on playing to honour his brother and the French players took it on themselves to ensure the tribute would end in triumph.
There was one glorious scrum, in which De Villiers and the French pack, destroyed the Boks and changed the momentum of the Test. The French would win and it would be Jake White’s first home defeat as Springbok coach.
De Villiers returned to South Africa after his retirement and would finally wear a Springbok blazer as scrum coach for Heyneke Meyer’s team.
The 2019 World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus named De Villiers in his original Springbok coaching team in 2018 but De Villiers had to withdraw because of personal reasons. He returned to France to assist Heyneke Meyer as scrum coach for Stade Francais and currently is the scrum coach of Scotland.
De Villiers, born and raised in Malmesbury in South Africa’s Western Cape, played 150 matches for Paris’s Stade Francais and won the Top 14 trophy five times.
WATCH: DE VILLIERS GIVES AND INTERVIEW IN FRENCH