Bok hookers: 'Bubbling under' brigade have new hope

Scarra Ntubeni (Gallo Images)
Scarra Ntubeni (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Scarra Ntubeni, Akker van der Merwe, Joseph Dweba ... all spring prominently to mind as candidates likely to be drawn closer to Springbok plans at the start of this year’s international season.

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At least two factors greatly enhance that likelihood: the first is the retirement of 38-year-old Schalk Brits, who was a popular element of the broader 2019 World Cup-winning squad.

But the revelation earlier this week that Bongi Mbonambi, the Stormers dynamo who had worked his way to the top of the Test pecking order by the time South Africa jubilantly hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan, has a more serious hamstring injury than first thought also creates a greater state of flux in the position.

Expected to rule him out of the entire remainder of the Super Rugby 2020 campaign - the final is on June 20 - there will clearly be no guarantees that he is shipshape in time for the Boks’ first match under new head coach Jacques Nienaber against Scotland at Newlands on July 4.

As much as Cape-based Mbonambi would no doubt love to play in what will represent the last Test match ever staged at the famous stadium, there is the threat that he will either still be in late rehab from the injury or simply too ring-rusty at that point to be considered for international duty yet.

The tigerish 29-year-old from Bethlehem, a maul-manager extraordinaire, sports 36 caps and had eclipsed the behemoth figure of Malcolm Marx to the Bok No 2 jersey for all the crunch knockout fixtures at RWC 2019: Japan, Wales and England in that order.

In the event that Mbonambi is not quite ready by the time the Boks open their Test account this year - two against Scotland and one against Georgia as “starters” to the Rugby Championship main course, if you like - Marx would have a wonderful opportunity to vault back to the helm of plans in the position.

The Lions player is on a half-year sabbatical of sorts from the franchise, involving a stint in the less rigorous climes of Japanese club rugby, but he is due to return in June which puts him right in the frame - presumably fairly refreshed - for the Scotland and Georgia challenges.

But Nienaber and his lieutenants will still be on the hunt for at least a “number three” hooker in the extended squad to replace the veteran Brits - he was a lively factor and sometimes leadership figure against some smaller foes at the last World Cup - and perhaps also now another extra player in the position if Mbonambi can’t start the Test campaign.

Stormers squad-mate Ntubeni, not quite 29 yet though horrendously jinxed by injuries of his own at times in his gritty first-class career, is one who may benefit from a Bok gap, especially if he can get through the current Super Rugby season unscathed.

He has remained on the radar of former national head coach Rassie Erasmus (still the highly influential director of rugby) for some time, a fact confirmed by his well-received, maiden appearance as a substitute in the pre-World Cup clash with Argentina at Loftus on August 17 last year.

Another ambitious character, however, is now Sale-based Van der Merwe - the renowned “Angry Warthog” for his trademark bustling endeavour in open play, even if his lineout throwing has not always been marked by the most pinpoint of precision.

Van der Merwe, 28, has three Bok caps (again, all off the bench) from Erasmus’s first year at the coaching helm in 2018 so must possess at least some decent understanding of the desires and policies of the current national brains trust.

But if the Boks aspire to blood a slightly younger player in the important spinal berth of a rugby team this year, then currently uncapped, 24-year-old Dweba has some appeal.

The 106kg Cheetahs player, born in earthy Carletonville on the West Rand, will have been banking increasingly useful experience of northern conditions through his involvement in the Pro14, making him more than merely a hard-pitch factor at high altitude.

He has gone through the natural progression of SA Schools and SA U20 representation, so pushing for senior Bok selection should be coming round about now in his development anyway.

Whether Mbonambi is fighting fit for the advent of the Test season or not, the Springboks should not be short of quality counter-options ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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