Cape Town – It applies in equal measure to rugby as it does
to football: substitute an uninjured player in the first half and it is almost
always, and usually justifiably, regarded as one of the ultimate humiliations
So it is also a big call for a coach (or manager) to make; certainly
not a decision to be taken flippantly.
In short, the player must have been deemed pretty rotten
indeed by his boss to warrant the extreme step.
On Saturday, amidst the broader unease of another Springbok
defeat and error-strewn performance in Brisbane, Rassie Erasmus saw fit to call
off Bongi Mbonambi in the 35th minute.
At the time, the chunky little hooker didn’t seem one of the
worst-performing Springboks, especially bearing in mind that the first-half
showing had, collectively, been reasonably decent and the pack functioning with
some power, purpose and intensity.
In fact – and I studiously watched the full “first 40” all
over again on Sunday night, keeping a beady eye on Mbonambi while he lasted – I
felt no desire whatsoever to adjust my own game rating of the player, on
Sport24, from the respectable 6/10 I gave him once the dust (OK, perhaps not
the most fitting word after a greasy night) had settled on Suncorp Stadium.
That tally was higher, for what it’s worth, than I handed
out for as many as nine other Bok starters on Saturday, and I stayed quite
comfortable with my judgement.
Until that defensive lineout long-throw fiasco which cost
the Boks seven points, to irksomely relax a near-iron grip two minutes before Mbonambi’s
substitution, the Stormers man had been as lively as any compatriot, especially
in terms of his excellent management of mauls (including suitably animated
communication) as the carrier - one such rumble led to a well-merited try for
Other than that, I spotted precious few genuinely obvious
gremlins from him on a day where there were debilitating dozens from men in Bok
Yes, an attacking lineout went awry off Mbonambi’s throw,
but even then - I won’t pretend to be a Victor Matfield scientist of the trade
- I saw little noticeably wrong with the accuracy of his delivery; it was
simply one of those instances where an opposition jumper (Rory Arnold) times
his contestation to perfection and gets a hand in front of the intended
recipient for a steal.
Erasmus insisted afterwards that he did not withdraw
Mbonambi because of the damaging, 33rd-minute overthrow incident,
mentioning that the hooker would have been the recipient of a routine
instruction on the throw in any case (it is highly unlikely he just blitzed the
ball in blindly).
There was also a costly, sluggish reaction from beneath the
posts from captain Siya Kolisi, who allowed the ball to bounce past him instead
of attempting to “kill” it, which allowed Matt Toomua his well-taken dive-over
But even if we take Erasmus’s word that the costly,
infuriating lineout booboo had nothing to do with the yank-off, shouldn’t the
coach have factored into his thinking - especially with halftime so invitingly
close - that the vast majority of observers would have interpreted it quite
differently? Seen it instead as a knee-jerk, seemingly rash sort of event in
the wake of that Bok lineout howler?
But his post-match spin on why he really took the Mbonambi
action - that the player had “emptied his tank … you could see he was
struggling” - wasn’t swallowed any more readily by punters and public alike.
Very seldom a player queried for his conditioning or work
ethic (at least to my knowledge), Mbonambi still seemed to have more in his
legs near the halftime whistle than, for example, tighthead prop Frans Malherbe - vastly improved in Brisbane, mind - had demonstrated at the corresponding
point against Argentina in Mendoza a fortnight earlier.
On that note, a not inconsequential lobby back home were inevitably
drawn, given unique South African historical complexities, to seeing racial
undertones to the first-half substitution: effectively, white coach
“disciplines” black player through unorthodox early withdrawal.
While open to spirited correction if necessary, the last
prior instance I can recall of a not injured Springbok starter being called off
before the break was when Rudolf Straeuli did the same to Lawrence Sephaka.
The loosehead prop, in just his third Test and first against
a frontline nation, lasted only half an hour of a Wellington Test against the
All Blacks in 2002 to make way for Ollie le Roux; South Africa still crashed
Just one observer cynical about the Erasmus explanation was
Thando Manana, the subject of Sibusiso Mjikeliso’s much-publicised book Being a Black Springbok.
The former flank said on Twitter that he was “not falling
for this rubbish talk … what coach in the world picks an (international) player
who can only do 35 minutes”?
He added, and hardly unreasonably, based on events at
Suncorp: “What about Faf (de Klerk), Willie (le Roux)? Surely they didn’t
deserve 80 minutes?”
As racially-charged firestorms go, Erasmus seems to have
largely dodged the danger of a big ‘un.
It may well be influenced to a strong degree by the fulsome
way in which he has embraced transformation stipulations so far - probably more
willingly and purposefully than by any predecessor, in fact.
He made Kolisi his captain, and has seen mostly encouraging
standards so far from rookie players like S’bu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and
Makazole Mapimpi. He has also blooded already a bright 20-year-old, Damian
Willemse, and facilitated a possibly overdue first cap on Saturday for Cheslin
But he exposed himself, unnecessarily, to a potentially far
more serious hoo-ha than eventually transpired over “Bongi-gate”, if you like.
Five minutes, Rassie, five minutes … I earnestly feel
Mbonambi, so seldom lacking for pure heart in rugby, could have found a few
extra fumes for you, and then more decently made way for Malcolm Marx at the
outset of the second half, when changes somehow just seem infinitely more
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