Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx can get even better, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Consider the great forwards of the modern era. Consider who had the means to influence a contest to a telling degree over 80 minutes, as well as the ability to make the one big play that meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Richie McCaw did the job for the All Blacks for 148 Tests. David Pocock was a more prolific ball-stealer than McCaw when they were in their prime – and Pocock’s 2018 Super Rugby stats suggest that the Wallabies openside flank remains one of the best in this department.
As far as the Springboks are concerned, the great side that beat the British & Irish Lions and won the Tri-Nations in 2009 boasted two X-factor forwards in Bismarck du Plessis and Heinrich Brüssow. If the opinions of the public, the media, and indeed those of several former coaches and players are any indicator, Malcolm Marx will take his place in the rugby pantheon sooner rather than later.
The New Zealand Herald scored Marx ‘a perfect 10’ in its ratings after the Bok hooker’s influential showing against the All Blacks in Cape Town last year. Marx was subsequently named SA Rugby Player of the Year on the back of his performances for the Lions and Boks in 2017.
More should be read, however, into the recent comments made by Nick Mallett and John Smit. Marx sustained a hamstring injury in late-May and was forced to miss the Boks’ Tests against Wales and England. When he returned to action for the Lions, it was clear he hadn’t lost any of his potency.
‘Whenever the Lions were under pressure, Marx turned the ball over,’ said Mallett after the Lions’ emphatic win over the Jaguares in the Super Rugby quarter-final at Ellis Park. ‘He must have won five or six turnover penalties right in the red zone when they were under intense pressure. I thought he was outstanding.
‘I think we should be very grateful,’ the former Bok coach added. ‘We’ve had a great captain in John Smit as a hooker. We’ve had Bismarck du Plessis, who was the best in the world in his time. Suddenly out of nowhere pops Marx. I believe he’s the best in the world, and he’s still so young.
‘The work this guy does in the tight-loose is quite extraordinary. He wasn’t there during the June internationals, but he is going to be there for the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. He is an absolute menace around the ball. You cannot move him; he is completely legal and when he is on the ball, that ball is lost.’
Smit is another big fan. Having been at the coalface of Test rugby for 111 Tests – and having played 96 of those games at hooker – the former South African skipper is best qualified to assess Marx’s progress after two seasons with the Boks.
‘I’ve been really impressed by what Malcolm has produced,’ Smit tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I had the opportunity to wear that Bok No 2 jersey for a long time. It meant a lot to me. I feel immensely proud, though, when I see Malcolm performing to such a high standard in that position.
‘He’s everything you want in an international hooker, plus a bit more. He never appears to get flustered or drawn into off-the-ball scuffles. He’s humble and is always asking the right questions with the aim of improving his game.
‘His work rate, that ability to make the big plays and his overall attitude commands respect from teammates and opposition players. He’s a man with real gravitas and easily the Boks’ best player at present.
‘I sometimes think about which of the current players would have made the Bok side during that era [when the Boks won the 2007 World Cup, beat the British & Irish Lions and clinched the 2009 Tri-Nations title]. For me, Malcolm would certainly be in the mix.’
Marx gives one the sense that he isn’t taking any of the hype to heart. If anything, the man who missed the Tests against Wales and England appears to have a point to prove.
‘I was upset when I was forced to miss the Tests in June,’ he says. ‘When I stopped to think about it, though, it may have been a blessing in disguise. I’d played a lot of rugby over 18 months and my body was telling me I needed a break. There were other benefits as I had an opportunity to take a step back. I listened. I learned a lot.
‘I’ve put last year behind me,’ he says after being reminded of the fact he was the 2017 SA Rugby Player of the Year. ‘It’s a new Test season for me and I’m determined to improve by 5-10%. There are a few small things I need to work on and I’m willing to put in the hours to ensure I make the shift.
‘I was worried I would struggle to find form when I returned from injury at the back end of the Super Rugby tournament. To be honest, I don’t feel as if I was at my absolute best in those games. It was rather a case of everything going my way. The team deserves credit for putting me in those positions.’
The stats tell a different story, though. Marx forced more than twice as many penalties at the ruck and maul than the next best player. The Lions boasted the most accurate lineout in the tournament and finished the season with the most tries from first phase. Marx made a big impact with ball in hand too, as his attacking numbers confirm.
He deflects praise once again when his ability to read an attacking pattern and launch himself into a ruck is compared to that of South African opensides such as Brüssow and Francois Louw. What becomes clear as the conversation continues, however, is that Marx has put a lot of work into honing that skill.
‘Experience is so important, as it influences how you read and see the game. You get a feel for things; you know when to attack the ball at the ruck or when to hang back. Those are two exceptional players who have a great feeling for the breakdown, and I don’t think I’m quite in that league yet. I feel I can improve in that area and in other aspects of my game.
‘A turnover can decide the result,’ Marx says when asked if he relishes his breakdown role at the Lions and Boks. ‘I prefer to think about it more as the team putting me in that position. When it comes off, it’s the product of a team effort.
‘That said, you have to keep pushing yourself beyond your limits. If you keep pushing yourself to be even 1% better, there may come a time in a big game where that little edge is the difference between winning and losing.’
The Boks won two matches, drew two and lost two in the 2017 Rugby Championship. Marx feels that the team, under new coach Rassie Erasmus, will be more competitive in the 2018 tournament.
‘Our win ratio actually wasn’t that bad last year. We lost a few games we should have won. I suppose that’s the key, though, learning to grind out a result in those close games.
‘The 57-0 result against the All Blacks in Albany was disappointing and we came back to South Africa determined to show everyone what we were capable of. We certainly did that in the Test against the All Blacks at Newlands. The result didn’t go our way, but the character we showed in that contest was encouraging.
‘I liked what I saw in the England series,’ he adds. ‘The Boks are attacking a bit more, and Jacques Nienaber has made a difference to the defence. I won’t take anything for granted regarding my selection, but I would love to be part of that set-up for as long as possible. That is the kind of rugby I enjoy. I love playing with ball in hand and having a go.’
Marx was yet to lock down a starting spot in the Lions’ Currie Cup team when the last World Cup squad was announced in 2015. Next year, however, there’s a good chance he will travel to Japan as the Boks’ first-choice hooker.
‘It’s always been a dream to play at the World Cup. I will need to play well and stay healthy over the next year or so to realise it,’ he says.
‘I feel like I’ve come a long way with my rugby over the past few years, but I’m still hungry to learn.
‘I want to play as many Tests as I can for the Boks. It’s a team I’ve loved since I was a young boy. It still means everything to me. I will do everything I can to help the Boks succeed and to make the nation proud.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.