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Wilco: We have such short memories

News24
14 May 2018, 21:39 GMT+10

Cape Town - Let's be honest, as Naas Botha might say in studio punditry: young Stormers scrum anchor-man Wilco Louw is currently performing just a little short of expectation and ability.

He has been as prone to inconsistency as the franchise's more collective set-piece in recent weeks, culminating in the Newlands-based outfit being crucially outfoxed in the department by a below-strength Chiefs pack during the highly costly first home Super Rugby defeat of the season (15-9) on Saturday - the Capetonians are flirting very dangerously now with also-ran status.

I use the word "outfoxed" deliberately, as opposed to outmuscled, because there has been subsequent criticism - notably from former Springbok coach Nick Mallett and WP director of rugby Gert Smal - of the way New Zealand referee Mike Fraser policed the match, and more specifically interpreted that area.

Mallett felt that Stormers loose-head Steven Kitshoff "copped it" especially unfairly from Fraser.

Whatever the merits of demerits of the theory, truth be told Louw, on the other side of the engine room, didn't manage to dominate the sometimes third-choice man in the Chiefs' No 1 jersey, Karl Tu'inukuafe (All Black Kane Hames and Aidan Ross have both been sidelined by medical issues).

That is naturally a bit of a concern, but Louw, 23, looks increasingly as though he is falling virtually inevitable victim to over-play this season in his unusually demanding, fatiguing position.

He is also, reportedly, carrying an ankle niggle that will hardly be helping him.

The 130kg behemoth from Ceres has been forced into greater use than has been ideal because of how long it took the more experienced Frans Malherbe to return - and very tentatively as a substitute, at that - from his long-term neck injury.

The pair would have offered dreamy rotational possibilities had they both started the Super Rugby season, but instead Louw has had to carry the can at No 3 for several months; next-in-line Carlu Sadie is a rank rookie, tasting his first campaign at this level.

All three have travelled to Hong Kong for the Stormers' next assignment against the Sunwolves on Saturday, and perhaps head coach Robbie Fleck may finally have the luxury in this one of handing Malherbe, a 17-cap Bok, a start.

It would allow Louw at least something of a breather, in the event that he enters the fray only around the hour mark for last-quarter impact.

Considering how tightheads often only mature deep into their twenties (or even beyond), Louw is a diamond in the South African dust, and really must be managed better in a game-time capacity as quickly as possible, to the benefit of both the Stormers and the national cause.

What short memories the surprising crop of critics of the player in recent weeks have, too.

In an otherwise abjectly bleak finish to the Allister Coetzee tenure as Bok head coach in late 2017, Louw was one of the refreshing exceptions to the hallmark of rank mediocrity that engulfed the playing staff.

He made his debut in the 50th minute of the rousing, albeit dead-rubber Rugby Championship Test against the All Blacks at home ground Newlands, replacing a penalty-prone (not for the first time) Ruan Dreyer and revitalising the position, both at scrum time and in general play for half an hour.

Louw was then a monster factor in WP's clinching of the Currie Cup crown in the Durban showpiece, before confirming his booming Test prowess in three starts on the traditional end-of-year tour.

I scored him 6.5/10 on my Sport24 ratings chart for his starting debut against France (won 18-17), a seven against Italy (won 35-6) and seven again for the season-closing 24-22 reverse to Wales in Cardiff.

Believe me, those were lofty totals when compared to some, stuttering members of the Bok teams of the time.

So he thoroughly deserves being regarded as the incumbent, and more than just in an "on paper" context.

Yes, subsequent Super Rugby form is important, but the brawny unit has certainly played some good games amidst the Stormers' frustrating ups and down, so it is ridiculous to suggest he should slip down - or even right off - the Bok radar for the outset of 2018 international challenges in June.

Malherbe's return could not have come quickly enough, in enabling Robbie Fleck and company to start employing Louw a little less taxingly.

Also in the player's favour (although it is far from ideal for his franchise if they are somehow still in playoffs contention) is that the Stormers have a bye in the final round, immediately ahead of the four-match June Test itinerary.

If Louw gets that valuable, guaranteed week off and then new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus also looks elsewhere for his No 3 for the Washington-staged Test against Wales - Saracens' Vincent Koch, maybe? - then the front-ranker could enter the more critical home England series nicely fortified by a full fortnight's break.

Certainly there is healthy domestic pressure coming through for the Bok No 3 jersey from the likes of Trevor Nyakane (Bulls) and Thomas du Toit of the Sharks.

But Louw must remain a major, possibly premier, factor in the Bok plans.

I suspect Erasmus, gratifyingly, will recognise that ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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