The debate around who should be the Springboks’ starting hooker against the All Blacks is testimony to Bongi Mbonambi’s drive and temperament over the last two years, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
In 2011 South African golfer Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes at Augusta National to win the coveted Green Jacket and his one and only Major thus far.
Schwartzel held his nerve to come out on top in one of the most thrilling editions of the Masters. At one stage eight players had a share of the lead, before Schwartzel became the first Masters champion to birdie the closing four holes of the final round.
Schwartzel’s victory was underplayed in the United States, where Masters winners are normally treated like kings. There were no late-night television interviews, courtside seats at NBA games or even a visit to the Empire State building, where Patrick Reed showed off his new jacket after he won in 2018.
Holding your nerve in the big moments is what all sportsmen strive to do. Having that focus to execute and do the business under pressure is what makes the effort in the gym and the training field worth it.
Bongi Mbonambi’s ‘Masters moment’ was against France in 2018 when the Boks found themselves behind in the last 10 minutes of the match. Mbonambi had five massive lineouts during that time when he came off the bench as the Boks gunned for victory.
He hit all five, with the last one leading to the decisive try which he scored himself at the back of the Boks’ rumbling maul. He executed when he had to, and the Boks won.
Mbonambi hit the headlines for a brief moment, but he remains a character largely in the shadow of fellow Springbok Malcolm Marx, who has become one of the best hookers in the world over the last few years.
But Mbonambi deserves a lot more credit for what he brings to the Bok table, and his hard work over the last few years to actively compete with Marx for the starting berth.
Mbonambi has gone from a player who got the odd couple of minutes under Allister Coetzee, to playing a starring role in the Test series against England in 2018 when Marx was injured and becoming a proper and dependable impact player off the bench.
Erasmus also has the confidence to start him in big matches. Mbonambi earned his 29th cap – only his fourth start – in the Boks’ decisive Rugby Championship match against Argentina. In that match, and in the Test against Australia at Ellis Park where he also wore the No 2 jersey, Mbonambi put in top displays.
Bok supporters don’t always see his value, because he doesn’t compete for the ball on the ground like Marx. But Mbonambi’s work rate, such as hitting breakdowns, in terms of moving bodies and also securing ball on attack, is absolutely priceless.
Mbonambi’s defence is also an asset around the fringes of the rucks. His channel is a cul-de-sac and he more often than not gives the Boks that momentum with a big hit, which allows his teammates to counter-ruck.
He gets his hands dirty, and complements Marx’s all-action style of play.
Both Marx and Mbonambi can still have the odd off day when it comes to their lineout throwing, but both are working hard on it. Mbonambi has especially made this a big focus at training and made big strides over the last few years.
In the first Test against England, in the absence of Marx, Mbonambi came straight back from injury and didn’t miss a single jumper. He also had a great game around the park.
‘He is a hard worker. When he wants to do something, he gets it done. He deserves everything that comes his way at the moment,’ Mbonambi’s Stormers teammate Scarra Ntubeni told SARugbymag.co.za.
‘He has had a lot of criticism, but he has pushed through and I’m really feel for him, because I know what he has gone through.’
Gone are the days when Marx plays close to 80 minutes every Test match. Mbonambi is an important part of the Bok set-up. When a ‘Masters moment’ arrives later in the tournament, he will be ready to sink the proverbial championship-winning putt.
Photo: EPA/Yoan Valat