The Springboks are gambling with their World Cup title defence prospects by going all-in on Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx and not investing in support at hooker, writes DYLAN JACK.
Four years since Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, the Springboks are still in a similar position with regard to their choices to wear the No 2 jersey.
As it stands, going into the first of three World Cup warm-up matches and the final game before the 33-man squad for the global showpiece is announced, only Mbonambi and Marx have had substantial game time in the middle of the Springboks’ formidable front row.
The dynamic duo led the charge for the Boks in 2019 and were ably supported in Japan by then-38-year-old veteran Schalk Brits, who also surprisingly dovetailed as a loose forward.
Four years later, the Springboks’ brains trust have a big decision to make over whether to include Deon Fourie or Joseph Dweba in the final squad that will travel to France to defend the world title.
Neither of the two Stormers forwards has received substantial time in the Bok No 2 jersey in 2023. Substitute appearances in the closing stages of the Rugby Championship opener against Australia at Loftus Versfeld account for the sum total of Dweba and Fourie’s game time for the Boks in 2023.
The unfortunate reality is that being a third-choice hooker at Test level is very much like serving as a backup goalkeeper in football. It’s highly unlikely that you will be regularly called on, but you will be heavily relied upon when you do get the odd start.
Dweba last started for the Springboks in the loss against Australia in Adelaide in 2022. He was hooked before the 30-minute mark in both of his last two Test starts, and in four Tests with Dweba in the No 2 jersey, the Boks have a 25% win rate.
Meanwhile, Fourie has primarily been used as a loose forward for both the Springboks and the Stormers. He did wear the No 16 jersey twice in 2022, but only got nine minutes as a replacement hooker, when he came on for Marx in the victory against Australia.
There is a temptation to compare Fourie and Brits, given the utility forward tag attached to both. However, while Brits was a specialist hooker who could moonlight at loose forward (an easier position to shift between), Fourie is a loose forward who can operate as an emergency hooker, a far more difficult job given how specialised of a position hooker is.
Prior to the 2019 World Cup, Brits was primarly used as a hooker for the Premiership-winning Saracens and the Super Rugby playoff-chasing Vodacom Bulls. It made sense to include him as the support player in Japan.
Fourie, meanwhile, has not started a competitive match at hooker since March 2018, when he was playing for Lyon in the Top 14.
Hooker isn’t just a position one can jump into. It’s less getting back on the bicycle and more getting into the pilot’s seat of a Boeing 747.
It is telling that, with an excellent opportunity to throw either Fourie or Dweba in the deep end and really test their ability as a starting hooker, the Boks have opted for neither and instead stuck with the tried and trusted in Mbonambi.
Explaining the situation, Jacques Nienaber defended the low number of minutes Dweba has received as a starter since his Test debut in 2021.
“At least we have got minutes into him. If you look at the third hooker at some of the teams, they probably on less minutes than Dweba.”
“It is just the way it is. Bongi and Malcolm have got a majority of the games. But Joseph has had a little bit of minutes. With four games and we have three hookers, with Deon standing in as a fourth, it’s tough. We have tried to manage it as best we can.
“As I said, when you look at a lot of the other teams, their third hooker has had no minutes.”
With only two more games left to prepare once the final squad is announced – one of those against the mighty All Blacks at Twickenham – it looks like the Springboks will be betting all on Marx and Mbonambi’s fitness.
There will be heaps of trouble if one, or both, pick up knocks.
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