Cape Town - The stirring showing of veteran Schalk Brits from the rare No 8 position slightly overshadowed another important hallmark in the Springboks’ World Cup camp: Bongi Mbonambi simply continues to play the Test rugby of his life in 2019.
Currently the main back-up option to huge-shouldered first-choice hooker Malcolm Marx, Mbonambi warranted being right up there with Lood de Jager (the eventual recipient) and Brits for the player-of-the-match laurel against Namibia on Saturday.
He played another thunderous 64 minutes, amidst a broadly imperious Bok tight five, against the desert-nation minnows in the 57-3 victory before being substituted to allow the 38-year-old Brits to close out the contest from his more familiar berth.
The low-slung Stormers player has now begun three Tests in the calendar year – this was his first at RWC 2019 – and each time South Africa have earned thumping triumphs: 35-17 against Australia in Johannesburg, 46-13 against Argentina at Salta (the Rugby Championship title-clincher), and then Saturday’s near-rout at the City of Toyota Stadium.
Coincidence? Perhaps only to some extent.
For just as it takes more than one player to monopolise a particular match, Mbonambi has genuinely shone as an individual on each of the last two occasions, especially.
While there were some issues around his lineout throwing-in accuracy on occasions against the Wallabies, which curtailed him to a 6/10 on my Bok ratings chart at the time, the last two Test matches, against the Pumas and then our African neighbours, have seen him earn a glowing 7.5 each time.
What’s more, those two matches have also seen him dot three tries, including his maiden brace of them against the Namibians.
All three have been the result of his uncanny ability to steer with composure and aplomb driving mauls off attacking lineouts – still a very key manner in which the Boks engineer tries, let’s face it.
There is an art to getting it right, especially as referees are always on the lookout for obstructive or fracturing aspects to the “rumble”, and Mbonambi is a master at keeping the truck rolling both vigorously and legally.
But the fluency of his lineout work has also lifted appreciably of late, while his overall restlessness and high level of industry in the tight-loose was routinely evident again on Saturday.
At least for the moment, Marx, a runaway choice as SA Rugby Player of the Year after his massive season at all levels in 2017, remains the frontline pick in the important “spinal” position in a team.
But it is also difficult to argue with real conviction that he has retained those dazzling levels subsequently: while still a real “presence” with that 114kg and 1.88m frame of his, both his turnover work and ball-in-hand bulldozing have just tapered off a little for consistent effectiveness to the Bok cause.
While a little smaller at some 106kg and 1.76m, Mbonambi has been playing with the dynamism and mongrel of a bigger figure physically … and the Boks seem to lose incredibly little in scrummaging power, either, when he is in the middle of the front row.
An alliance of Steven Kitshoff, Marx and Frans Malherbe has been Erasmus’s favoured “first team” combo in that department recently, but bear in mind that Mbonambi is well familiar with both props through their stationing together at Newlands for several seasons, so if he were to advance in the hooker pecking order, there would be no significant disruption to continuity or familiarity.
There is a good likelihood that the Bok mastermind, who has kept a pleasingly firm hand on the selection tiller, will maintain trust to the fullest extent in the starting line-up from the 23-13 Yokohama reverse to New Zealand when he names his troops (on Tuesday) for Friday’s Italian challenge in Shizuoka.
But several starting stalwarts are feeling increasing heat from just beneath in the hierarchical rankings.
Their ranks, arguably, include Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk, squad captain Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Malherbe … and Marx, as much on the grounds of Mbonambi’s concerted charge as anything else.
“Bring your A-game … or bust,” might just be the quiet message to a few such figures against the Azzurri?
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