Cape Town – The rise of Lizo Gqoboka‘s stocks has been one of the most notable aspects of the South African rugby season to this point.
It culminated – following his durable, rousing service to the Bulls a little earlier in Super Rugby 2019 ‘ in the Mount Frere-born loosehead prop‘s thoroughly deserved debut for the Springboks against Australia in Johannesburg a few weeks ago.
Gqoboka replaced decorated veteran Tendai Mtawarira in the 48th minute of the handsome 35-17 victory to open the Rugby Championship account of the eventual tournament winners, and last weekend added a second cap when he came on for Thomas du Toit in the 46th minute of the altogether scrappier 24-18 triumph over Argentina at his home franchise venue of Loftus.
It’s been a rousing few months for Gqoboka, who famously only took up rugby some 10 years ago as a late teenager, and even then started out as a loose forward or lock.
But while he has managed to quickly enough look suitably at home at the highest level, the 29-year-old may fall agonisingly short of making the cut for the 31-strong Bok World Cup squad to be announced next Monday.
If that is the case, the unfortunate irony is that Bulls colleague Trevor Nyakane will probably have been indirectly responsible for his absence.
Head coach Rassie Erasmus is expected to accommodate five props in the party, including four pretty near certainties in Mtawarira, Steven Kitshoff (looseheads) and, for the tighthead anchoring role, Trevor Nyakane and Frans Malherbe.
That would leave one further spot up for grabs between Vincent Koch, Gqoboka and Thomas du Toit.
All of that trio have remained part of the extended training squad of 36 currently in Bloemfontein, but it is not unreasonable to suspect that two will eventually be culled for the big trip to Japan.
That seems to make sense: when the Boks went to the 2015 World Cup under Heyneke Meyer‘s tutelage and earned the bronze medal, five props were taken along (Malherbe, Nyakane and Mtawarira, all expected to go again, plus Jannie du Plessis and Coenie Oosthuizen).
While he offers utility value and is a dynamic ball-carrier, Du Toit may have jeopardised his RWC 2019 presence by labouring a little at scrum-time in his maiden Test start (though 10th cap) on Saturday … and only a week after the Bok “first team” pack had destroyed the Pumas at the set-piece on their own Salta turf.
That arguably leaves a straight shootout for a World Cup passage as fifth front-ranker between the more tighthead-favouring, Saracens-based Koch and Gqoboka, who sticks exclusively to the other side of the engine room.
But Bulls team-mate Nyakane‘s versatility (or more pertinently read: the comfort with which he could cover “No 1” chores, if necessary) makes it seem more feasible that Koch will squeeze into the mix at the expense of Gqoboka.
This season, the popular, low-slung Nyakane has been a revelation at No 3 for both the Bulls and Boks, to the extent that he may well be considered the first-choice tighthead right now, ahead of more seasoned presence Malherbe.
Yet Erasmus will know that he could quite easily summon him back to loosehead duty if suddenly necessary, without Nyakane having to bat an eyelid when it comes to knowledge and memory of the berth: the bulk of both his general career and Bok duty has still come on that side of the boiler room.
Should Gqoboka be preferred to Koch in the squad, however, the Boks would have a more acute balance problem among their prop resources if either of senior designated tightheads Malherbe and Nyakane went down injured for a few days or weeks: it would leave them, at least in an immediate sense, with three out-and-out looseheads and only one remaining “right shoulder” customer in the group.
Besides, Koch is an asset to the cause in his own right, something evidenced by his lively industry around the park at Loftus last weekend.
When he really puts his mind to it, too, he is a highly destructive scrummager, highly regarded by many English Premiership-monitoring pundits.
If Gqoboka fails to crack the RWC jamboree, he will elicit widespread sympathy.
But with someone like Mtawarira now 34 and almost certainly playing his final World Cup shortly, a much more staple presence for the younger man in the Bok midst for the next four-year cycle seems near-guaranteed, if that‘s any consolation in the event of his omission …
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