Boks: Is Marx's halo slipping a bit?

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

Cape Town - The fact that an entirely fresh Springbok front row has been picked suggests that we should be extremely wary of reading too much into head coach Rassie Erasmus’s thinking over positional “favourites” at this point.

By the end of Saturday, South Africa will have completed three Test matches in four weeks on three different continents ... which is one good reason for assuming he is doubly conscious of rotational needs in an area of play that involves unique exertion demands.

That could well explain why it is the department that has involved the most noteworthy, wide-scale shuffling of personnel over the month-long Rugby Championship period in question.

For the title-deciding closing match against Argentina in Salta (21:40 SA time), Erasmus reunites, for the log-leaders, the front row who had also started the tournament opener against Australia in Johannesburg: Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane.

That trio had then all been replaced by Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe respectively for the following week’s clash with world champions New Zealand in Wellington, before returning to favour for the showdown with the Pumas - they are the only three changes revealed to the starting XV involved in the 16-16 draw there.

Call it deft player management, if you like - because it almost certainly is that, whether intentionally or not.

But it is also an indication that Erasmus has flipped his front-rankers around liberally because he knows he can: the competition is that healthily tight across the trio of berths; he arguably gains every bit as much quality as he sacrifices in doing so every time.

Nevertheless, the vibe from the Bok camp in the lead-up to the Argentinean date has been very much that they want to claim the silverware, for the first time since the (former) Tri-Nations of 2009 - by extension suggesting that World Cup-geared experimentation was to be kept to a relative minimum for this one and an outfit with strong “A-team” flavour put out.

Against that backdrop, powerhouse hooker Marx only finding a place on the bench seems one of the more conspicuous aspects of the Bok staffing plans for Salta.

Remember that he is second-last recipient - Pieter-Steph du Toit followed, at the end of last season - of the prestigious SA Rugby Player of the Year award for his stirring, intensely physical exploits during what was otherwise an unmemorable final year for the national side under Allister Coetzee’s tutelage in 2017.

Speaking of Du Toit, the consistently inspiring blindside flanker will have begun all three Championship matches, considering his own retention for this Saturday and despite an impressive fleet of loosie counter-options should a rest have been deemed suitable in his case.

Marx, by contrast, had no involvement in the Wallaby game on the Highveld, having been part of the advance guard who went to New Zealand to prepare for the next tussle instead, and then played 70 minutes of the Cake Tin match before Mbonambi got a late gallop.

It is also not as if the brawny Lions favourite had played glaringly too much rugby in the immediate run-up to the Test season: his franchise were not involved in the playoffs, so played their last ordinary-season match on June 15, well over a month before Test combat began.

So people are entitled to wonder whether there is some significance to Stormers-based scrapper Mbonambi, so often Marx’s understudy previously, getting two starts in the Championship to his one.

It is probably not inaccurate to say that the nearly 115kg behemoth, in more recent Tests since that routinely glittering 2017 international peak in some senses, has become a little less visibly dynamic both with ball in hand and as a scavenger over the ball - an area where he is particularly capable of demoralising the opposition on his best days.

Marx may also be paying a price, at least for the short term, for the fact that the Springbok lineout has performed with less than its more customary clockwork efficiency, even if Mbonambi - one of the best rolling-maul controllers and carriers near a try-line that you will find - has similarly experienced plenty of hiccups in that core facet of a hooker’s play.

It may well be that, if the Boks were hypothetically involved in a World Cup final tomorrow, 25-cap Marx would instead remain Erasmus’s premier starting option in the berth.

But Mbonambi’s stocks do, at the same time, appear to have risen.

It will be a surprise, then, if we witness any detectable lethargy from either hooker - whether Mbonambi up front and then Marx as the impact factor - against the Pumas on Saturday.

As with several other currently hotly-contested positions, that pleasing state of affairs is probably exactly what mastermind Erasmus seeks as RWC 2019 looms ever larger ...



15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Javier Ortega Desio, 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 5 Marcos Kremer, 4 Matias Alemanno; 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro

Substitutes: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Tomas Lezana, 21 Gonzalo Bertanou, 22 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 23 Joaquin Tuculet

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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