Cape Town - The Stormers will be anxiously holding thumbs that Scarra Ntubeni’s own injury problems really are behind him following the operation that is likely to rule Bongi Mbonambi out of the rest of the Super Rugby season, but if he does stay fit he has a gilt-edged opportunity to make up for lost time.
It was confirmed on Tuesday that Mbonambi, the starting hooker for the Springboks in last year’s Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama, has had to undergo an operation on a hamstring injury that has turned out to be much worse than it was initially thought. Stormers coach John Dobson doubts that Mbonambi will play again in the Super Rugby season and there is also doubt over whether he’d be ready to play for the Boks against Scotland and Georgia in July.
The injury has severely dented Dobson’s plans as he was placing a lot of stock on the fact that he had two very good front-rows backing each other up, with both Mbonambi and Ntubeni capped for the Boks, as are the two tighthead props, Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw.
However, while he’d probably be the first to concede that an injury to his remaining fit Bok hooker could be campaign threatening, the Mbonambi injury does have a slight upside for Dobson in the sense that it represents an opportunity for a player he has known and coached for a long time.
“This could be a great opportunity for Scarra and I just hope he stays fit. This is his chance to get an extended run as the starting hooker and there may be a gap for him now at international level with Bongi injured and Malcolm Marx overseas,” said Dobson.
The caveat of course has to be that Ntubeni, who has had many injuries to deal with in recent years, gets to see out the season himself. The man of the match in the Stormers’ 13-0 win over the Bulls last weekend did have to have some running repairs both during that game and the previous one against the Hurricanes, when he came on as a replacement.
But Ntubeni, who turns 29 next week, has arrived in the new season in a better space than he has been for a long time and is feeling both good about life and ready to take on the responsibility of being the starting Stormers hooker over an extended period.
“I feel like the injuries are behind me now and I am feeling really good, I am excited,” said Ntubeni during a break in training this week.
A long and frustrating wait
It has been injuries that have prevented Ntubeni from making the progress in his career that might have been expected from him after the rousing start he made to his first class career, where it will be recalled he was a major player in the WP team that broke a long Currie Cup drought in 2012.
But while the East London born product of King Edward VII School made his international debut for the Boks in a World Cup warm-up match against Argentina in Pretoria last August, it came after a frustrating six year injury plagued wait following his first call-up to national honours in 2013.
Ntubeni was included by the then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer in the 30-man squad that toured France, Scotland and Wales, but he spent the tour carrying tackle bags. He didn’t get to play or even sit on the bench, so wasn’t capped.
He would have returned from that tour thinking it had been a good opportunity to get used to touring with the Boks in preparation for what he must surely have felt would be the bigger role that would follow. Alas, that never happened, due mainly to the serious injuries that kept him off the playing field for months going on years in the period that passed between that first tour and his debut in Pretoria six years later.
“It was an extremely tough and frustrating time for me with the injuries,” says Ntubeni.
“In the year or two before I started getting injured I was in really good condition and I played my best rugby then. Then slowly niggles started to creep in, and then in 2016 I did my Achilles. That broke a lot of my career momentum.
“I was out for a long time and then I came back and did my hamstring in the same way that Bongi has now. Again, it was a long time out. That whole period, 2016 to 2018, when it felt like I was constantly out, was very tough for me.
“Talking about the Boks, it felt like that ship had sailed. It was something fading away from me. I would love to have still achieved it, but I didn’t think it would happen, particularly since it had been five or six years since my first Bok opportunity. So once it did come last year it was a massive weight off my shoulders, even though it came in a weird way. Hopefully I can build on that and remain injury free.”
Why Ntubeni said that his first proper Bok opportunity came in a weird way was because of the circumstances that led to his first cap. It appeared that Ntubeni’s arrival in the Bok squad coincided with a week of aberration from the then Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who is highly regarded by the players for his willingness to be honest and communicate with them.
“I didn’t know I was playing until the Thursday before the game. There was no chat. Well there was normal chat, but not rugby chat. So I couldn’t be prepared to fly my parents up for the game and that sort of thing. Normally the team announcement is made early in the week but it wasn’t that week. I am not sure why.”
Ready to shoulder the responsibility
Regardless of how it came about, Ntubeni did get to play, and is now going into what could be an important season for him as a capped Bok and with Mbonambi out of the picture, his own importance in the Stormers squad, and subsequently the pressure on him, has increased.
“Obviously Bongi being out puts pressure on me. Maybe I shouldn’t say it is pressure, it is more about ownership. Usually I have Bongi to bounce ideas off and to push me and things like that. Now from my position a lot of the stuff has to come from me. I can’t wait for Bongi to push me because he isn’t there. I have to do the extra work myself.
“I need to be more of a leader. So it is a bit different now. But I am enjoying the game time. I played a lot off the bench before and it has got me the game time I need and I feel I a back into the groove. I feel like I am fine now, I have had lots of game time and am ready to play most of the game if that is required.
“As I say, the injuries are behind me and I am feeling good. I played 70 minutes last week against the Bulls. On the Highveld it will be difficult to put in a full game but I did do 60 minutes against the Sharks on Marvel Day (at FNB Stadium). Dobbo said afterwards that I looked like a blob of lava, but I am fitter now than I was then.
“If I have to I will try and get through the whole game, but we will also try and slow the game down a bit as it goes. I definitely don’t want lots of scrums like we had last weekend. The aim will be to keep the forwards fresh. They (the Lions) will want to speed the game up but we will want to slow it down.”
He may or may not have had the slowing down objective in mind against the Bulls, when apparently he had some of his teammates in stitches when he asked referee Marius van der Westhuizen if he could set the scrum five metres to the right of where it was being set because there was shade there.
What Ntubeni won’t be hoping for though is that there is anything slow about the progress of his career from here. He’s spent enough time on the sidelines and it is time for him to catch up on what he has missed out on. The coming months represent a great opportunity for him to do that.
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