Bongi: Bok coach flirted with firestorm

Bongi Mbonambi (Getty Images)
Bongi Mbonambi (Getty Images)

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 in sport.

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 him.

Other than that, I spotted precious few genuinely obvious gremlins from him on a day where there were debilitating dozens from men in Bok jerseys.

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 gift.

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 41-20.

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 Kolbe.

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 humane.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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