Rugby Union: Rhino of Free State prepares to charge the Lions

The British Isles' rugby union tourists will face a peerless prop called Os du Randt in the first Test. Chris Hewett reports from Cape Town
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The Ox is a man of few words, so it comes as something of a surprise to hear him waste one. "When I was in the South African army, I spent most of my time as a tank commander," he says, obviously unaware that the word "commander" is superfluous.

Jacobus Petrus du Randt, known to all and sundry south of the equator as "Os", is Springbok rugby's equivalent of Table Mountain. You cannot see over him - the official tale of the tape has him at 6ft 3in but he looks three feet taller - and if you opt to go round him, you are in for a very long detour. He is as wide as he is long and that, as the Lions' front row will discover when they take the field for tomorrow's opening Test in Cape Town, makes him very wide indeed.

Du Randt, the rhino of the Free State, is not the quickest prop forward in contemporary international rugby - that particular accolade goes to Adrian Garvey, his Bokke confrere from Natal - but for all his 19st ballast he is no one's idea of a tub of lard; indeed, he had the same time over 40 metres as James Small, the Springbok wing, at a recent fitness assessment get-together. Os on the hoof is a sight for sore eyes, the sort of African challenge Ernest Hemingway would have relished provided he was armed with a 12-bore shotgun and a bottle of brandy.

Worryingly from the Lions' perspective, the scrummaging performance of their tight forwards has been of constant concern since a fairly workaday Eastern Province unit asked all manner of awkward questions in their opening match a month ago. Those worries will increase tenfold if Du Randt raises a gallop at Newlands, for it is safe to say that the tourists have met no one remotely like him thus far.

"Scrummaging is all about concentration and aggression," he said here this week after bulldozing his way through approximately a hundred set- pieces in a marathon Springbok training session. (He looked as fresh as a daisy, by the way). "The mindset is the thing that matters. If you've got that right, the rest follows.

"A lot has been said and written about the Lions' scrummaging difficulties but I think they've improved a lot as the tour has gone on. In my experience, no international team has a weak scrummage. It's just that scrummaging is different here in South Africa to the British style. We still use it as a place to exert domination, as we always have, and because we generally play on good surfaces, you can get your legs right back and hit really hard. In England or Wales, the surfaces tend to be loose and you have to pack higher rather than lower. You just can't scrum there in the same way."

Du Randt was born in September 1972 in Elliot, a tiny town in the Eastern Cape bordering the Transkei, and is almost an exact contemporary of Mark Andrews, the world-class Springbok lock who, remarkably enough, hails from the same handful of houses. "Our paths didn't cross in the early days, even though Elliot was such a small place; Mark was English-speaking while I went to the Afrikaans Adelaide Gymnasium. But we both played for South Africa at schools level and have been through a lot together since becoming full Springboks.

"Yes, I was always a prop forward; right through school I was bigger than any of my mates. In fact, my weight has stayed pretty steady since my late teens - I think I've gained about five kilos in the last three years - so I don't suppose it ever occurred to anyone to play me anywhere other than the front row."

Sure enough, since making his Test debut against Argentina in Port Elizabeth a little under three years ago, Du Randt has set new standards of front row play in the country that, more than any other, makes a virtue of the mysterious habits and vices of the darkened recesses. From Boy Louw in the Thirties, through Jaap Bekker and Chris Koch in the Fifties, Piet du Toit and Mof Myburgh in the Sixties to Hannes Marais a decade later, the Boks have hero-worshipped their hard nuts far more than the dancing angels outside the scrum. Du Randt is aware of the tradition and fiercely protective of it.

"In my view, the prop must be the fittest man in any team," he says, adopting a tone that brooks no argument. "It's the most demanding of all positions, especially the way the game is played now. My coaches expect me to scrum, tackle, carry the ball and then scrum again, sometimes in the space of a minute. There is no let-up.

"That is why professionalism could prolong my career rather than shorten it. When I was combining rugby with my job - I fixed mechanical diggers for a living - I would work all day with heavy machinery and then scrum all night with my provincial team. At least there is less pressure now. It allows me to concentrate on nothing but rugby."

As with every other Springbok, Du Randt regards the series with the Lions as an undisputed high watermark of his rugby existence. Only one thing frustrates him about the make-up of the tour: the loss of the chance to lock horns with the visitors at provincial as well as international level. The cornerstone of the Free State's Super 12 pack will miss out on Tuesday night's match in Bloemfontein because of the Springbok hierarchy's decision to keep their players in purdah before each Test.

"Of all teams in South Africa, Free State have the best spirit, the most togetherness, and I would dearly have loved to play in Bloemfontein. At least I have Naka Drotske, my team-mate, alongside me in the Springbok front row so we're making progress towards a Free State take-over at Test level, but I will be thinking of the rest of the guys when they take on the Lions next week. If I had the chance, even now, to go out and play, I would."

Somehow, the midweek Lions might be better off under the status quo. If they have to confront big game on this tour, they would rather do it at a safari park than on the rugby field.