Springboks prop Frans Malherbe has given a fascinating insight into the dark arts of the rugby scrum, the difference of packing down in northern and southern hemisphere club rugby and the gory truth of cauliflower ears as he joined The Roar Rugby podcast this week.
Malherbe has 46 caps for South Africa and has played more than 100 times for the Stormers and chatted to podcast hosts Harry Jones and Brett McKay about his rugby origin story, having been pushed into the game against his interests as a kid to become a world class prop.
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“I didn’t want to play rugby in the beginning of primary school,” he said, explaining he wanted to spend time on his family farm instead of training for the sport.
He had a headmaster who had one leg but had completed the arduous Cape Argus cycling event.
“He came to me probably because there was a shortage of players and I told him I didn’t want to play because I wanted to go back to the farm. He told me I’m wasting a talent and he said look what he did with his one leg finishing the Argus, imagine what I could do on a rugby field.
“That guilt trip is how I got started. I was nine or 10 years old, playing rugby barefoot, where you hope and pray you don’t get the first game in the morning because then to take off the dew on the fields.”
McKay asked Malherbe to compare the scrum in the United Rugby Championship, where the South African franchises now play, with those in Super Rugby.
“It’s an interesting question,” Malherbe said. “The northern hemisphere are normally and traditionally well known for the game’s tight, it’s wet weather, it’s raining, keep it tight, very set piece based and then I think to myself it’s not – they still play the ball , play it out wide.
“And I don’t think super rugby are any less good than the European scrums. Some of the scrums might have been easier in the URC than they would have been in Super Rugby.
“I didn’t expect that to be honest. It might be a wild claim to make because I’ve only played six games since injury [against the All Blacks in the RC last year].
“All of them are tight. Both Super Rugby and URC are first class rugby and the scrum is such an important part of possession, you can’t neglect it – you can’t not put your energy into it.”
Malherbe was asked about the dark arts of the scrum and how he liked to manage referees. He also commented on a suggestion by South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus that rugby should introduce specialist referees to come on the field just to police scrums.
“I saw that. On the other hand there are refs with a very good understanding of scrums,” Malherbe said.
“If you get the right guy in, a scrum specialist and not just opinionated in one way on how scrums work, then there might be some value in it.”
He said the so-called dark arts were hard to put into words and was more about certain “tricks to get your body into certain positions.”
He likes to have a running discourse with refs but they’re not always open to it.
“If you chat to a ref before the game and he tells you listen watch out for this or don’t do this, or the other team complained about this that you do, you go cool, I’ll fix it,” Malherbe said.
“And as you go on you ask him ‘are you happy with it?’ If there’s an issue he blows you for, check in after 10 minutes. You’ll very quickly understand if he’s happy.
“If he communicates back to you that’s a good sign and if he does not blow you again then it’s better. But you also get those days where the guy is not open to talking, or any communication and you just know, today you’re going to get nailed by the refs.”
Malherbe said scrummaging was a constant challenge.
“There’s no such thing as an easy scrum,” he said. “I promise you if you think beforehand that it’s going to work out well then it’s not going to.
“You must be in sync, all eight, and people underestimate that a lot. They look at the front row but it’s all eight.
“I’ve been fortunate to play with some very good hookers and they are very important, especially when those dark arts and tricks come into play, very quickly you can be dominated if your hooker does not understand how to play.”
Malherbe was asked about the rugby forward’s occupational hazard of cauliflower ears.
“Mine are coming along hey,” he said. “I’m trying to manage the best as possible.
“I thought when I started playing rugby professionally that in 10 years time I’m going to have the ugliest ears on the planet, but I realised it’s not actually from scrumming.
“It’s an impact or a collision – contact to the ear – that triggers it. The scrumming doesn’t help but the cauliflower comes from impact directly on the ear which makes it start to bleed and the blood in that area starts to get hard.”