The Springboks' tighthead battle is on

PORT ELIZABETH -- Vincent Koch probably revolutionised tighthead-prop play in South Africa before he left for England.

Quite a bold statement? Well, he was probably the first player to show that a great scrummager can also make close to 10 carries and tackles in a rugby match.

When Koch made his debut in 2015 the Boks had Jannie du Plessis as their premier tighthead.

Du Plessis was the Boks' anchor in the front-row, a player who seldom found himself in reverse gear when it came to scrum time. However, he didn't offer the Springboks much in the tight loose, and would generally be responsible for a couple of penalties in Test matches.

Koch, though, was strong in the scrum, but also got around the park like a loosehead or a hooker. He hit a lot of rucks and even made a few nifty offloads in the tackle. He was the new breed of tighthead.

But Koch's ability against international props came under the spotlight against Argentina in Durban in 2015 when he was pulverised in the scrum. This arguably cost him his place in the Boks' World Cup squad.

However, following Koch's departure to Saracens in England, a trend of converting looseheads into tightheads started in South Africa.

Coenie Oosthuizen was the first, before Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit were also switched from the left to the right side of the scrum.

It was because of a shortage of tightheads in the country, but also because the Boks were looking for more dynamic players in the No 3 jersey who can scrum, tackle, carry and even make the odd 'behind-the-back' pass.

That project has to a large extent been successful, with Oosthuizen being a mainstay in the Bok No 3 jersey in 2017 before he suffered a serious knee injury against Ireland in November.

Nyakane had a few decent games in Super Rugby before injury curtailed his season, while Du Toit was impressive when he came off the bench against England in June.

So, now coach Rassie Erasmus has an embarrassment of riches to choose from in the No 3 jersey, as original tightheads Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw are also playing great rugby.

Then there is Koch, who is back in the Springbok fold for the last two Rugby Championship home matches against the Wallabies and the All Blacks.

Erasmus will probably take only three tightheads to next year's World Cup in Japan, with one of them likely to be an Oosthuizen, Nyakane or Du Toit who can swing from tight- to loosehead.

So, it's an unbelievable luxury for the coach to have so many tightheads who can do a job for the team.

"It's really a good problem to have. I think the group of tightheads we have are world-class players and any coach of any team would like to have that problem," Koch told media ahead of Saturday's Test against the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth.

"It's definitely a challenge, but we are all mates and we all just want the best for each other and the team. So, we are going to push each other to the next level, because competition does bring out the best in the player and the team."

Malherbe and Louw are certainly in the inside lanes as far as World Cup selection is concerned, while the injured duo of Nyakane and Ootshuizen will have to work their socks off just get ahead of Du Toit at this point.

Koch, though, can take advantage of his lifeline in the next couple of weeks against the Wallabies and the All Blacks. It's a chance to show that the 'Koch effect' was real.

The tighthead fight for World Cup places is on, and it could get bloody over the next two weeks.