Malcolm Marx can emulate one of South Africa’s greatest hookers, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Johan Ackermann is quick to remind SA Rugby magazine that he was one of the first to draw comparisons between Malcolm Marx and Springbok great Bismarck du Plessis.
‘People laughed at me,’ the former Lions coach says as he shakes his head. ‘Perhaps my comments back then [in 2014] were misconstrued.’
Marx represented South Africa at the World Rugby U20 Championship and the Lions at Super Rugby and Currie Cup levels in 2014. Eyebrows were raised, however, when Ackermann said the then 20-year-old hooker possessed the physical attributes and the game awareness to ‘become the next Bismarck’.
‘There was criticism, especially after Malcolm struggled in a few of the games,’ the coach recalls. ‘I’ve always believed he had the potential to be something special, though. Look at him now. He had an outstanding series against France in June. He was one of our key players in the Super Rugby playoffs. Malcolm is getting close to realising that potential. It’s early days in his international career, but I still believe he can become one of the great Test hookers.’
But nobody laughed when former Springbok coach Nick Mallett made a similar statement during the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. Marx became a regular feature in the match-day squad after first-choice hooker Robbie Coetzee broke down with injury.
The youngster made that opportunity count, and was subsequently rewarded with a call-up to the Bok squad.
‘He is a marvellous defender,’ said Mallett. ‘His tight phases are amazing. His throwing-in at the lineouts, his driving play, his tackling and his scrumming are excellent. The props next to him must feel incredibly secure. The big difference between Malcolm and Bismarck du Plessis is that Malcolm is appreciably faster around the field. Bismarck is a powerful but slow player, more like another prop. Malcolm is like a No 8 playing hooker. He has the skills of a loose forward, but the correct lineout and scrumming techniques of a world-class hooker.’
The second half of 2016 proved to be the most challenging time of Marx’s young career. Bok coach Allister Coetzee backed captain Adriaan Strauss and Bongi Mbonambi in the starting and reserve hooker berths respectively. Marx won two Test caps, both from the bench, and battled to make a telling impact. The All Blacks and Wales punished a couple of poor lineout feeds, and Marx began to question his ability.
He tells SA Rugby magazine the experience forced him to address a couple of technical issues in the lead-up to the 2017 season.
And after a string of consistent showings in the Super Rugby tournament, and three emphatic performances against France, it would appear the raging bull is back to his best.
‘I remember coming off the bench to win my first cap against the All Blacks in Christchurch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous. It doesn’t get any bigger than that, playing against the No 1 side in the world in their own backyard. I had an idea of what to expect in that I had faced some of those players at Super Rugby level, but when I got on to the field, it was like nothing I had experienced before. I had to try to adapt to the pace and intensity very quickly.
‘I suppose I can look back and call it a valuable learning experience,’ Marx continues. ‘I’m in a good space. I back myself a lot more and feel like I handle the pressure much better than before.
‘I’ve put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes, though. During the pre-season, I spent hours and hours practising my lineout throws long after training had finished. I started to get my confidence back after playing a few games for the Lions. I started to see results when playing for the Boks. I’m not getting ahead of myself, though. There is plenty of room for improvement.’
That the 23-year-old can, and should, improve is encouraging. The Boks dominated France at the scrums and lineouts in June. There were times during that series when Marx resembled an American football running back; busting tackles and carrying his team well beyond the gainline.
Marx carried that form through to the Super Rugby playoffs. By the end of the tournament he had 10 tries to his name. No forward scored more in the 2017 season.
‘Game time has made a world of difference,’ says Bok assistant coach Johann van Graan, who has worked closely with Marx at the lineout over the past two seasons. ‘Starting those three Tests against France allowed Malcolm to build up some momentum and confidence. What people may not realise, is that a starting hooker enjoys more opportunities to throw into the lineout at training. He gets more chances to hit his jumpers in practice and thus receives a better opportunity to strengthen that relationship before a big match. He’s worked hard on his lineout throwing and the results are plain to see. Allister Coetzee’s selection of other Lions players, like Franco Mostert and Warren Whiteley, also helped his cause. There’s a good synergy between them.
‘A good attack usually starts with a good set piece. We certainly saw that in the Test series against France and in the Super Rugby play-offs,’ Van Graan continues. ‘The Lions put the Hurricanes under pressure at the scrums and lineouts. You can’t win a scrum penalty unless your front row is dominating, and you can’t set a maul and win a penalty thereafter unless your hooker is hitting his jumpers. That is so crucial to attacking success. It allows you to build momentum.
‘I’ve been impressed with his improvement at the defensive breakdowns too. His decision-making has been excellent, not only at the rucks, but with ball in hand too. He’s become one of our best carriers in the wider channels. It’s not only about the metres he’s made, but also the decisions he’s taken after receiving the ball in those positions.’
Van Graan was the Bok forwards coach between 2012 and 2015 and worked closely with Du Plessis during that period. He understands why many people have described Marx as Bismarck 2.0.
‘Malcolm and Bismarck are both very physical players,’ he begins. ‘Bismarck has made so many important steals at the breakdown over the years. Now we’re seeing Malcolm playing a similar role and enjoying some success as a player who slows and occasionally steals the ball at the defensive breakdown. Bismarck has a knack for popping up to make a big play at a crucial moment in the game. Malcolm is developing that. Both are excellent set-piece players.
‘What separates them is the role they play as ball-carriers,’ Van Graan points out. ‘In the past, Bismarck was used to carry the ball in the middle of the field. Malcolm is usually used in the wider channels.’
Marx realised a lifelong dream when he started for the Boks earlier this season. He confirms that he never wanted to be anything other than a Test rugby player.
‘I did have a few other interests as a kid,’ he says. ‘I played water polo for KES, and that certainly helped to develop my core muscles and shoulder strength. I loved it, but by Grade 10 I knew I wanted to be a pro rugby player. I started working towards that. My mom and brothers gave me a lot of encouragement and support, as did my school coach Carl Spilhaus. My friends and my girlfriend all gave me the push I needed to make this dream a reality.’
He made the switch from flank to hooker only in his final year of school, though.
‘I grew up as a loose forward, and my heroes were Schalk Burger and Richie McCaw,’ Marx says. ‘I loved what they brought to the game and wanted to be like them. Things changed a bit when I moved to hooker in Grade 12. At that stage, Bismarck was dominating just about every team he faced on the world stage. Suddenly I had someone else to look up to. He’s one hell of a player.
‘The modern game demands that forwards contribute across the park,’ he adds. ‘If you take the scrums and lineouts out of the equation, my role as a hooker is the same as it was when I was a loose forward.’
The Boks went into the Rugby Championship with some momentum after their three wins over France. It won’t get any easier for South Africa at the scrums and lineouts, though. The All Blacks are but one of the teams that will demand more of the Boks in these areas.
‘The Rugby Championship is a totally different beast,’ admits Van Graan. ‘All three of our opponents will pose different challenges at the set pieces and we know we’ll need to keep improving. The All Blacks have led the way at the lineout for some time. There was a massive battle at the scrums when the British & Irish Lions toured New Zealand recently.’
Despite his inexperience, Marx will be expected to make an impact against some of the modern game’s most decorated players.
‘Malcolm is still very young. This is only his second year of playing in the front row at Test level,’ says Van Graan. ‘He has made excellent progress and has a great attitude. He’s one of those players who wants to make the big plays when the pressure is on. He wants the ball in his hands. There was a moment in Christchurch last year when he broke the line. He broke the line twice during the early stages of the first Test against France this year. He’s determined to make an impact and that kind of attitude can be infectious.’
Marx should go into the Rugby Championship as the Boks’ preferred starting hooker. That said, one gets the impression the player still feels he has a point to prove and he may be looking to make a statement in the Tests against the All Blacks.
‘It’s been my dream since I was a youngster to play one game for the Springboks,’ he says. ‘I was blessed to receive the opportunity to start three in a row against France. They have a strong set piece and we did pretty well at the scrums and lineouts. That boosted my confidence. I felt the more I played, the more I learned.
‘I want to play for the Boks in the Rugby Championship. I want to go up against some of the best players in the world. It’s going to be a challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know there is room for improvement and I will never stop working to help the team.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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