Boks v Japan: Why Marx will wish to avoid a 'Bissie'

Malcolm Marx (Getty Images)
Malcolm Marx (Getty Images)

Cape Town - There is so much in common between Bismarck du Plessis and Malcolm Marx, heading into respective 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

At the time of the last event, in England, Du Plessis was still considered among the planet’s premier custodians of the hooker role.

Now 35, he has almost certainly faded into an international sunset, having last played for South Africa (his 79th cap) in their bronze medal-deciding final fixture of RWC 2015 against Argentina at the Olympic Stadium in London.

But he was a revered heavyweight of the Test scene, in every respect, entering that tournament and while still just about at the peak of his hard-nosed game.

In fear-factor terms, much the same status will apply to the 25-year-old Marx as he contemplates the 2019 World Cup ... his own maiden one, and beginning for the Boks roughly a fortnight after Friday's "loosener" against host nation Japan in Saitama (12:15 SA time).

In the same league as Du Plessis for muscularity, natural abrasiveness and a major headache to opponents over the ball at breakdowns, he is the second-last recipient of the official SA Rugby Player of the Year mantle (2017), following his dynamic arrival on the international stage from late 2016 onwards.

More recently, however, sailing has been a little less than "plain" in Bok colours for the strapping, 114kg unit.

Not unlike Du Plessis at varying stages of his career, the accuracy of his lineout throwing-in has come under occasional scrutiny, while his work as both a carrier and fetcher hasn't always, over the last two Test seasons, quite matched the dizzying standards of his earliest days in green and gold.

While a subjective observation, perhaps, you could argue that it has also been reflected in selection policy during 2019 by Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus: Marx has started only one of the four Tests thus far, against New Zealand in Wellington.

Erasmus has been noticeably, especially "rotational" in his front-row usage, so the strong pro-Marx lobby may submit that not too much should be read into Bongi Mbonambi - rapidly closing the previously more obvious gap between the pair - getting two starts to Marx's one (plus one, in an experimental line-up against Argentina at Loftus, going to veteran third element Schalk Brits).

After all, Marx is the frontline choice again for Friday, in what is widely being seen as a tune-up gallop for the mastermind’s favoured personnel for the huge RWC opener against the trophy-holding All Blacks.

But there are a couple of reasons why the man wearing No 2 in this much-touted revenge opportunity against the Brave Blossoms must aspire to hit the ground running in Saitama (not necessarily the easiest thing for him to do, as he hasn't begun a match since that Cake Tin date back on July 27).

Just one is that squad-mates Mbonambi, in particular, and Brits are breathing - pleasingly for the broader cause - down his neck to earn maximum possible game-time in the specialist berth at the World Cup.

Another, though, is that Marx may wish to take note of what happened to Du Plessis, some four years ago, after the Brighton howler against the very same, supposedly minnow foes the Boks face on Friday.

Then also deemed generally the Bok first choice in the role (ahead of Adriaan Strauss and the very same Brits), Du Plessis was one of the more high-profile selection-related casualties from the infamous 34-32 loss.

Shaken Bok coach Heyneke Meyer - to his credit, a significant Bok turnaround crusade would follow at the tournament - changed around half the Bok XV for game two of that World Cup against Samoa at Birmingham.

But Du Plessis was one conspicuous stalwart to fall, being replaced by Strauss for the "redemption" game a week later and paying a price for his clearly below-standards showing in Brighton, where he had been penalised at least three times for indiscretions at the breakdown (admittedly so often a flirt-with-the-boundaries area) or in offside terms.

Playing in his third RWC, the single-minded Battleship Bismarck duly steamed back shortly afterwards as top choice for the business end of the 2015 tournament.

But that's never guaranteed to happen, and Marx will be all too aware that failure to demonstrate his fieriest A-game on Friday could see him suffer the same fate as Du Plessis did following a Japan encounter ... simultaneously opening a fresh, inviting door to the hungry, strong-challenging Mbonambi.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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