Steven Kitshoff will start for the Springboks this year, with an undeniable claim to the number 1 jersey. He will, in spectacular fashion, step out of a shadow that never suppressed him, but rather set him up to become the most dominant loosehead in South African rugby writes Oliver Keohane.
Filling up the boots of Beast Mtawarira is not an easy ask. Since his debut against Wales in 2008, to his last international game as Springbok green washed the white of England in the World Cup Final, Beast dominated not only the South African prop ranks, but was widely accepted as one of the best looseheads in the world. In 117 test matches, Mtawarira started 102. So what does this mean for a prop so good and so impactful, but playing in the Beast-era?
It means that Kitshoff, who will by the end of the British & Irish Lions tour have played 50 tests for the Springboks, has started only 12 of his current 47. But not for lack of quality, whatsoever. Kitshoff took a while to come into the international setup, starring for the Stormers first, then moving to the Bordeaux Bègles to grow his game in France. Kitshoff’s international debut came only in 2016, after first breaking through at the Stormers and Western Province in 2011. But the patient wait for international acclaim, meant Kitshoff’s quality never faltered after that first test. Over the three years to the World Cup he accumulated his 47 test caps playing a role that arguably allowed Beast the legs to make it to 117 tests, and the Springboks to win the World Cup.
Kitshoff was not a ten minute substitute or an injury cover, but rather young blood of equal quality to Beast, who after 40 minutes of team’s suffering at scrum time to Mtawarira, would come on to crank the contest up another level. This rotation between veteran and virility was integral to the success that Rassie built with the Springboks.
But as much as Kitshoff’s energy and power provided a buffer to Beast, nearly 50 caps of tutelage under one of the best props to have played the game is so evident in Kitshoff’s growth as a player. Under the guidance of Mtwarira, Kitshoff has come into a position where he will be so comfortable as the starting Springbok loosehead, given how natural the progression to this point has been. The transition of ‘old’ into ‘new’, where ‘new’ is actually a half-centurion test player, is reminiscent of the All Blacks when they have been at their best. Think back to post the 2015 World Cup; Mealamu over to Coles, Carter to Barrett, McCaw to Cane. Think further back to post the 2011 World Cup; Williams to Whitelock, Woodcock to Franks. Between the respective four years, many similar transitions were made too.
South Africa, in the case of Kitshoff and Beast, got it right. Kitshoff, to his credit, never grumbled. There was a role that was understood from his side, but equally one feels there was a future that was awaited. The future is now, and Kitshoff, who leads the Stormers with over 100 caps to his name, is primed to fill the promise of his international progression, as a natural leader and the number 1 Springbok loosehead.
WATCH: Some of Kitshoff’s powerful displays