Mark Keohane picks Springbok standout in England series
Duane Vermeulen, among the forwards, and Faf de Klerk, among the backs, took the Springbok player of the series awards against England.
But hooker Bongi Mbonambi was, for me, the biggest winner.
Springbok first-choice hooker Malcolm Marx was ruled out of the series during Super Rugby and South Africa’s veteran Test hooker Bismarck du Plessis was also unavailable because of an injury sustained while playing for Montpellier in the Top 14 final.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus had no hesitation in selecting a fit-again Mbonambi to start against England.
Mbonambi had missed all 13 of the Stormers Super Rugby matches but returned to rugby with two provincial outings for Western Province in the SuperSport Challenge.
Erasmus and the Springbok medical team were comfortable with Mbonambi’s health and fitness a week before the England series started and Erasmus spoke up the qualities of Mbonambi.
Marx, in 2017, was comfortably the form hooker in world rugby and exceptional playing for the Springboks in the Rugby Championship. He remains a class apart from most, but Erasmus had no doubt Mbonambi would deliver with extended playing time.
The coach wasn’t wrong because the player produced two matches of the highest quality.
Mbonambi been good when starting for the Springboks against Italy in 2017. The Stormers hooker had been in the national set-up for a couple of years but his game time had been very limited. He would get the occasional few minutes and the perception, through his lack of playing opportunity, was that there wasn’t trust in his ability to be the No 1 hooker.
Erasmus was candid in backing the player. He also said that hooker was a position that demanded at least five or six options in the build-up to the World Cup.
The attrition rate is high among hookers and no team could rely on one or two stalwarts to make it through 18 Tests.
Erasmus said it was his plan to accommodate five hookers, maybe even more, in the 18 Tests between the Springboks’ first against Wales on June 2 and the last in 2019 before the World Cup starts.
Marx and Du Plessis will feature in 2018 and 2019, at some stage, prior to the World Cup and Mbonambi, Akker van der Merwe, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Schalk Brits all played for the Springboks the year’s first four Tests.
Already that’s six in the mix.
Mbonambi was comfortably the most impressive of the June quartet and his form was arguably the most satisfying result among the Springboks, when individually assessed.
The Test doubts over Mbonambi had no basis because he had never been given the game time to warrant a judgement.
The fact is he’s got the goods, and the set piece challenge doesn’t come tougher than England.
He was strong in the scrum in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, accurate in his lineout throwing and explosive when on running onto the ball.
He was more than adequate; he was bloody good. He proved more than a stop gap measure for Marx. Mbonambi seized the moment and made a statement.
Elton Jantjies, unfortunately, was the opposite of Mbonambi. Jantjies also got two starts and just did not produce.
I’ve carried the pom poms among the Jantjies support base for the last two seasons. I’ve willed him to succeed and delighted in any half measure of success. The cool, collected and calculating match-winner in Super Rugby disappears when playing for the Springboks.
Jantjies, who made his Test debut in 2012, has played 26 Tests and started in 19. He is now 27 years old and if a player hasn’t settled after six years and 26 Tests then he isn’t going to settle at Test level.
It’s time to move on and the flyhalf investment in Springbok game time must be with Damian Willemse as an alternative and very different option to Handre Pollard, who is at this juncture the No 1 Springbok flyhalf.
The June Tests provided more answers than questions in who swam and who sank, although I did expect greater presence and impact from Jean-Luc du Preez. He seemed to make up the numbers in a series I had picked him to be among one of the biggest numbers.
As for Mbonambi... I had him to make up the numbers and instead he announced himself as a serious number when it comes to Test rugby.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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