The Rugby World Cup: Ox carries big burden

The Frontman: Os du Randt; Paul Trow assesses the significance to South Africa of their fast and loose prop
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The Independent Online
TO BECOME world champions in rugby is an achievement that cannot be attributed solely to the presence of one individual. This all-for-one- and-one-for-all reality has dominated the philosophy behind the running of the South African team in the four years which have followed their crowning glory at the last World Cup.

Since then, numerous key performers have been almost ruthlessly cast aside, including the drop-goal hero Joel Stransky and the inspirational skipper Francois Pienaar. Even Pienaar's successor as captain, Gary Teichmann, was sacked at the first hint of failure during the recent Tri-Nations series.

But one giant figure has remained essential throughout to the Springbok cause. Whenever the man called Ox and likened to a rhino is missing, as was the case last winter when he was injured, their form wavers. With him back in harness, though, they are once again an awesome prospect.

At first sight Jacobus Petrus du Randt, universally known as Os, is the classic Afrikaner rugby beast - 6ft 3in and 19st of prime Free State beef.

With a physical resemblance to Table Mountain and the tackle of a dumper truck, it comes as no surprise that he is a loose-head prop, the cornerstone of what is traditionally a massive pack.

But at second sight, there is far more to Du Randt than lumbering set- piece bulk. Here is a man who can move like a gazelle, whose speed over 50 yards matched that of the legendary Springbok wing James Small, and whose ability to lob accurate basketball passes at full pelt is worthy of Michael Jordan.

Pienaar, who depended so heavily on Du Randt during the 1995 World Cup campaign, has no doubts that his erstwhile team-mate's qualities extend way beyond the regular propping duties of scrummaging and lifting locks at line-outs. "He'd be in my world team any day. He's very strong, very mobile and has a tremendously high work-rate," said the Saracens captain. "He's also deceptively fast over 50 yards, which is increasingly what you need from forwards in the modern game.

"He came into the team as a youngster, and when he played in the 1995 World Cup he hadn't made many Currie Cup appearances. In some ways he was a surprise choice, but he turned out to be a most important member of the team."

Du Randt won the first of his 33 caps five years ago, against Argentina at Port Elizabeth, so it is something of a surprise to discover that he has only recently celebrated his 27th birthday. Had it not been for the knee problem (a dodgy piece of bone which turned out to have died in service) which sidelined him for more than a year, his tally of caps would be nearer the half-century mark. But, indicating a strength of mind to match his physique, he refused to rush his return until the pain had gone and he could once again leg-press half-ton weights.

Earlier in his career, Du Randt jeopardised his chances of preferment to international level with a similarly determined demonstration of self- knowledge - his refusal to switch to tight-head when requested by his coach to do so for a Currie Cup match.

"I've always played loose-head since I was nine years old," said Du Randt. "I was always the biggest guy in the class and nobody ever thought of putting me anywhere else. "But a few years ago, when Free State wanted me to play at tight-head because they had a regular loose-head, I told them I would stick to what I knew I could do, and it's the best decision I've ever made."

Sometimes, though, such individuality can devolve into obstinacy and send the rumour machine into overdrive. Three years ago, during the course of a Tri-Nations defeat by the All Blacks, Du Randt reportedly told a team-mate he was feigning injury because he was fed up with his side's poor performance.

However, by the time Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan were devising the strategy which led to the Lions' historic triumph two years ago, Du Randt had matured as a character and was rightly identified as the man to stop - the totem from which his fellow Springboks drew energy and confidence. The Irish prop Paul Wallace, who is not remotely in the same league as Du Randt as a physical specimen, was chosen to scrummage against him, while the Welsh centre Scott Gibbs took it upon himself to ground the Ox whenever he looked threatening in open play. The ploy worked a treat, but Du Randt, a diesel mechanic who has recently switched provinces to Northern Transvaal, is likely to be a better-prepared engine this time.

Ox, rhino, gazelle? He may be a one-man zoo, but World Cup opponents could find him impossible to cage.

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