Two of local rugby’s most promising loosehead props are ready to make up for lost time this season after recovering from injury-riddled campaigns last year.
With depth in the No 1 jersey suddenly a bit shaky, national coach Rassie Erasmus will surely rejoice at Lizo Gqoboka and Dylan Smith’s respective returns.
LIZO GQOBOKA: ‘Who thought a toe could keep you out so long?!”
For prop Lizo Gqoboka, the 2019 Super Rugby season is all about picking up where he left off in early 2018, both for him individually and the Bulls team.
Gqoboka, who has been named in several Springbok squads but has missed out on a first cap largely due to injury, made a brilliant start to last year’s Super Rugby competition before breaking his big toe on his left foot and tearing the ligaments from the bone.
It ended his year and denied him what would surely have been a debut for South Africa.
“I’m really looking forward to the new season and I feel good and strong again. Who knew that a toe could keep you out for eight months, so for three months I was just conditioning my upper body and I was grateful when I was able
to run again. But it’s also about making sure I am mentally ready again. I want to be in that World Cup squad but my focus is on the Bulls and doing well here first.
“Last year I was on form and fit, Man-of-the-Match against the Highlanders and then I got injured. But I am fully persuaded that we will all have an even better season this year. There’s not a lot new that we’re going to be doing because the new coaches know how the Blue Machine works. Pote Human is no stranger to us and Anton Leonard [lineout coach] was here in 2016/17 and Pine Pienaar (defence coach) the same,” Gqoboka said.
The experienced Human is what the youngsters might call an “old-school coach”, and the former Eastern Province and Free State strongman has been ensuring the Bulls spend plenty of time on the set-pieces.
Which suits the 28-year-old from the former Transkei down to the ground.
“The set-pieces have been a big focus of pre-season. Coach Pote is old school but he has also adapted to the way we play now and I enjoy how he’s mixed the game-plans up. The Bulls are not going to lose their physicality but we’re also going to use the fast backs as well.”
DYLAN SMITH: “I’m mentally stronger”
At the age of only 24, Lions loosehead prop Dylan Smith has had to endure more shoulder surgeries than most of his peers will go through in an entire career.
While Smith had gathered just 36 Super Rugby caps since 2016, when he was tipped as a future Springbok and broke into the Lions ranks along with his KES-buddies and World Cup hopefuls Cyle Brink and Malcolm Marx, he felt
his setbacks had made him mentally stronger.
Having experienced previous surgeries, Smith felt he would soon be ready to make a comeback, and he hoped to be ready to take the field within the next few weeks.
“I’ve been through a few shoulder ops so I’m more prepared than ever,” he said.
“With a few experienced guys gone, that’s more of a challenge than anything else, and helping some of the youngsters who are very eager.”
Having former Bok prop Julian Redelinghuys and forwards coach Philip Lemmer in their ranks, however, had made the transition process easier for the squad.
“I think for a few of our Boks, the World Cup is lingering in the back of their minds, but for now everyone is really focused, so we are hoping for another good year,” Smith said.
“Off the field it has taught me a lot about myself. It’s not easy, especially three times in a row, but it makes your head stronger.”
With a tough start to the Super Rugby competition, Smith did not believe there was more pressure on the Lions than any other team because they had made the final for the last three years in succession.
“At the moment we can’t think past the next session, but it is a thought in the back of our heads,” he said.