Try to find a photograph of beefy Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe with empty hands. You cannot.
In order of frequency, you will see a beer bottle, or a long gun, a worried golf club supporting his 12 handicap, a hapless loosehead’s jersey, a grinning nephew, a teammate or sister or dad in his patented bind, an animal (a kudu or even a springbok) shot, a puff adder, a fish caught, a windmill part, a Merino about to be sheared, or the Webb Ellis Cup (full of beer).
Holding things, gripping things, and not letting go. A prime quality for a prop.
Malherbe in pictures is almost always wearing boots (rugby or rainboots or hiking boots) or no shoes at all. He looks remarkably happy, invariably.
He is unhappy about the 28-26 loss, particularly because three of Quade Cooper’s many points – and thus, a winning margin – were given to the Wallabies by big Frans himself.
A scrum late in the first half saw the big farmer, he who has been the bulwark of the Bok scrum in the last two World Cups, fold up against young Wallaby loosehead Angus Bell.
Yes, there was a reason. Bongi Mbonambi missed the strike, usually unnecessary because scrum-halves can feed it skew, but required on the Gold Coast because Luke Pearce is known to require a straightish feed. This meant Steven Kitshoff had to hook it, and the scrum bent.
All the sudden, Malherbe was propping it all up, too much even for the 6 foot 3 and 128 kg behemoth. A minute later, the score expanded to 19-11 and then it was oranges.
Try to find another photograph of Malherbe being that crumpled. You will struggle.
There is a reason one of the strongest scrummaging teams in world rugby over the last decade has had 44-cap Malherbe at the crucial tighthead position when he is fit. The looseheads, Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtwarira and Steven ‘Spicy Plum’ Kitshoff, have tended to steal the headlines. ‘Ox’ Nche looks like he may continue the trend, running like a mad barrel on fire downhill, of keeping Malherbe out of the limelight.
This probably suits the big boy from Bredasdorp.
Malherbe has the gift of focus. He thinks of rain, if in the Karoo to farm and hunt. He thinks of how his dam is doing. The Agulhas Bank, where Africa juts farthest south, sits just a few minutes from his childhood home; one of the richest fishing grounds on the globe. He thinks of the harvest from the sea, where the two great southern oceans collide, like a Currie Cup derby.
He thinks of hitting the target. He thinks of his family. He thinks of scrums.
Too much scrutiny on a tighthead is unwelcome. Malherbe tends to hit a bit early. He binds long at the start but can sometimes end up on the arm or even rip at armpits with a sheep-shearing technique.
He is the sweatiest forward in the game. There is a legend, from Japan, that says Malherbe lost five kilograms in the pool match against the All Blacks, a game in which he put Joe Moody’s elbow or hand on the grass in four consecutive scrums, famously pointed out by Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, in vain. New Zealand coaches noted Malherbe’s dodgy bind in rebuttal.
After the final against England, a win built on the scrum, Malherbe was seldom mentioned. Part of that is legitimately the high quality of his loosehead mates. But the other part is Malherbe tends to be taken for granted.
The sheer weight of him (125 kg at his leanest; 130 kg when seasons begin) and a farmer’s grip combine to suffocate smaller looseheads.
Come under him and he will stretch (he has longer legs than it would seem). You cannot get over him. The best bet is to try to turn in, but Frans does more pushing and pulling at the engagement than most. It is difficult to find his chest. It is hard to find his pain threshold.
He tends to have Eben Etzebeth behind him, and often bolstered by one of the Boks’ big lock-flanks. He would be the first to point that out.
But he is still one of those quiet props, loved by his teammates, and a bit underrated by the average journalist.
With Duane Vermeulen out for most of 2021, Malherbe was used as a defensive captain, with Kwagga Smith doing the honours when Malherbe went off. He is a smart man, does not miss many tackles (none in the World Cup at all), often dominates in collisions, had a high of 13 tackles in one Lions test, and can even compete over the ball.
Malherbe has a perfect win-loss record against the majority of teams, and a winning record (7-1 against the Pumas) against all teams except two: New Zealand (1 of 6) and Australia (1 of 3). A win against the Wallabies and he will only be on the negative side versus the Kiwis.
He has been playing top-level rugby since he was a teen. He was in the U20 Baby Bok squad with Siya Kolisi, Etzebeth, Mbonambi, and Kitshoff. They have seen it all. In a scrum, they are often bound together, touching, gripping.
Malherbe’s given name is Jozua, the name on the team sheet when as a 16-year-old Paarl Boys’ High School student, he played in 2007 as a member of the Western Province under-16 squad, his first time in the famous blue-and-white hoops. In 2009, he was vice-captain of the WP Craven Week team. Through the years, he has turned down millions to stay in the struggling union.
Maybe it has all paid off. He is a world champion, beloved in Bredasdorp, but has privacy, which he craves.
On the pitch, Malherbe has seen every tactic. If he comes up against Bell again, he will be ready. Calm, heavy, sodden, and rough.
He will be thinking of only one thing this week: win every scrum, win every tackle, win the breakdown, and win a second time against the Wallabies.
And knowing him, he will be happy, living in those moments, gripping and holding fistfuls of golden jersey, grinding to the end.