Cape Town – They say there is nothing quite as treasured as sportspeople being acknowledged by their fellow-players.
It is understandable in so many ways.
But after the Brightrock Players Choice Awards ceremony in Johannesburg on Tuesday – an initiative to be welcomed, in principle – I was only left doubting whether players make good “selectors” after all.
Malcolm Marx earning top prize on the night of Players’ Player of the Year … really?
While he still produced rugby of a very high standard much of the time (that’s what indisputably class acts do) I fancy I will not be alone in suspecting that the juggernaut Springbok and Lions hooker actually retreated slightly this year from his quite dazzling highs of 2017.
There was no single Marx game in the calendar year to match – though that would admittedly have been difficult – his sheer majesty in the Newlands Test against the All Blacks toward the end of the previous campaign.
I seldom felt he was as forceful on the deck, as unstoppable on the charge or – perhaps most pertinently of all – as acceptable when it came to key lineout-throwing accuracy for much of 2018.
The last-named department, in fact, was too often a noticeable bugbear, culminating in a particularly (and unusually) wretched outing for him in the first game of the Bok end-of-year tour against England at Twickenham, where a stream of mistimed throws were almost certainly influential in the controversial 12-11 defeat.
He had suffered a pretty similar degree of “off day” – he wasn’t alone, in fairness – earlier in the Test campaign when the Boks were near-humiliated in Argentina, going down 32-19 to the Pumas.
Marx was among those who effectively paid a price for the Mendoza mauling, being curtailed to the bench for the follow-up Rugby Championship clash with Australia.
Instead Bongi Mbonambi, who had been inspiring in the pivotal first two Tests of the home series triumph over England in June when Marx was injured, was restored to the No 2 jersey in Brisbane: as it turned out, he had a throwing-in shocker of his own and the more customary first-choice customer entered the fray as early as the 35th minute.
In a curtailed Super Rugby season for him, Marx was also reasonably muted, by his reputation, in the final in Christchurch, where he was intended to be a key figure in the underdogs’ assault – their third failed showpiece appearance on the trot – on the elusive silverware.
The 24-year-old is a colossal rugby figure in every respect, and almost certainly with his best years still ahead, which is a succulent thought indeed.
This is NOT intended as an exercise to dis him; he is among the top two or three most valuable elements in the Springbok camp, a genuine fear factor to opponents of all calibres when he is on premier form.
Clearly, too, his fellow-players consider him an “yster”, as they demonstratively say in Afrikaans.
But sorry, I still believe they got it wrong with their top-mantle choice in Sandton: I would have expected it to have gone to Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Instead, and even more criminally and perplexingly, the remoulded – and truly reborn, if you like – blindside flank bomber wasn’t even a nominee for Players’ Player of the Year: apart from winner Marx, they comprised Aphiwe Dyantyi, Kwagga Smith and Siya Kolisi.
Du Toit, so fabulously consistent and feverishly industrious throughout the 2018 Bok year, had to settle for “Defender of the Year”, which is just a bit like the runner-up earning a box of dried fruit after the main prize in the fund-raising raffle has been a trip to the Seychelles.
I simply feel that the sturdy Swartland-reared forward’s more pronounced conversion in the rugby year from the second row to the specialist cares of No 7 flank was the success story of the season, if you like, from a Bok perspective.
It was encapsulated by arguably the image of the year, too, being top gun on the night Du Toit’s tears of elation and sheer exhaustion – a captivating mix – seconds after the final whistle had blown on their shock victory over the All Blacks in Wellington, which was also probably the international performance, the seismic showing (sorry, Ireland) of the year.
On Wednesday, and not long after the dust had settled on the Highveld function, SA Rugby announced their own nominees for the more traditional SA Rugby Player of the Year Award.
With respect, I believe they hit the nail considerably more sweetly on the head than the players did, by revealing Du Toit, Marx, Handre Pollard, Dyantyi and Franco Mostert as the five contenders.
No quibbles from here, as they say.
The national body, I’m betting, may also deviate with their winner …
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