Malcolm Marx made the biggest impact for the Springboks in 2017, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
If there was an award for the standout individual Springbok performance from 2017, Malcolm Marx’s dominant display against the All Blacks at Newlands would be the winner. In no uncertain terms, it was an effort that had the entire rugby fraternity standing to attention as the young hooker emphatically affirmed his arrival on the Test stage.
According to Sanzaar’s statistics, Marx made 65m, 14 carries, beat three defenders, completed 11 tackles and won a remarkable four turnovers as he latched on to the ball at the breakdown as if embodying a barnacle on a sea-swept rock. He scored a crucial try, while providing an important assist for another. It was a performance that saw Marx awarded a perfect 10 player rating from the New Zealand Herald, while plenty of plaudits poured in from respected observers.
‘In terms of an 80-minute performance, Marx was absolutely immense,’ former Bok coach Nick Mallett enthused. ‘Malcolm had a very good game [against the All Blacks], but he’s had a good couple of seasons,’ former Bok captain Adriaan Strauss reflected. ‘I think he’s an exceptional player. He’s well-built; he’s an intimidating player because of his size, but he’s a hard worker too.’
Yet, when reflecting on that memorable performance, Marx remains as humble as ever.
‘The players around me performed so well on the day, and it was the team effort that enabled me to play as well as I could,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We didn’t want to be defined by the result in Albany [when the Boks lost 57-0], and we were determined to put it behind us and give an improved performance.’
While Marx’s immense effort in Cape Town might have been a highlight of 2017, the fact remains it was hardly a one-hit wonder. After starring for the Lions throughout Super Rugby, the 23-year-old’s irrepressible form saw him firmly installed as the Boks’ incumbent hooker, while he quickly made a habit of being recognised as a Man of the Match contender.
Having said that, Marx’s first full international season was not all plain sailing. In the midst of the Boks’ blowout against the All Blacks in New Zealand, the lineout completely malfunctioned, as just nine from 14 throw-ins were accurately executed. Although it pointed – at least in part – to a system failure, Marx manfully accepted that he would take ‘full responsibility’ for the lineout problems, and tirelessly returned to the training field to work on ironing out any apparent issues. A couple of weeks later, the Boks succeeded with 15 out of 17 lineouts, which was immediately backed up by a 93% lineout success rate in that unforgettable encounter at Newlands.
‘Lineout throwing is a constant work-on for me,’ Marx admits. ‘I’m learning every day from those around me, and from my own mistakes. I’m always looking to learn something new.’
Marx’s drive for constant self-improvement points to a work ethic and competitive edge that has always set him apart. Besides excelling as an avid waterpolo player during his high school days at KES, Marx was quickly identified as a special talent on the rugby scene. After a rapid ascension into the 1st XV, Marx realised by Grade 10 that he wanted to pursue a professional rugby career.
As a schoolboy star who stood out due to his size and strength, Marx featured at lock and in the back row until he made the transition to hooker in his matric year. It was former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer – then working at the Bulls – who recognised Marx’s all-round attributes during the U16 Grant Khomo Week in 2010, and suggested he consider making the move to the front row.
Marx’s school coach at the time, Carl Spilhaus, tells SA Rugby magazine it was a key point in the affable youngster’s fledgling career.
‘It wasn’t our brainwave to move Malcolm to hooker; that credit has to go to Heyneke. He passed the word on that he believed Malcolm could become a Test player within five years if he moved to hooker, and so we discussed this with him, and in his matric year he made the shift. The thing with Malcolm is that he’s such a talented player, he was always going to make an impact wherever he played, but I think we’ve seen proof of how the hooker profile suits him. His success is really down to him; he’s never been afraid of hard work and practice.’
So, what had Meyer seen in Marx to make him believe that a move to hooker would be so successful?
‘At that stage, Malcolm was just a young kid, but immediately I could see that he was a big, strong boy, who was really mentally tough,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Hooker is an incredibly challenging position. You have to anchor the scrum, then you need to throw in effectively at the lineouts, and you have to be a good ball-player – almost like another loose forward. I could see even at that young age that Malcolm had all the attributes to make it as a hooker.’
Meyer says it’s been pleasing to see how Marx has risen to the challenge of making the No 2 position his own.
‘A lot of credit has to go to Malcolm, and all his coaches at school level and at the Lions, because the move isn’t an easy one. It takes time especially to establish that consistency when it comes to lineout throwing, and you really need experience of doing that under pressure and against the top teams at Test level.
‘So, it’s fantastic to see that Malcolm has already broken through and begun to perform on the Test stage.
‘I think he will only get better. He’s the total package who can mix it up out wide in the “trams”, or just as successfully make his mark at close quarters.’
Understandably, Marx’s athleticism, abrasive ball-carrying ability and effectiveness at the breakdown have seen him draw comparisons to predecessor Bismarck du Plessis, who is a hooker of a similar mould. It’s a reference that Marx is fully aware of, but the 2017 season saw the youngster begin to emphatically blaze his own trail.
‘Ja, I like that type of rugby,’ Marx says when asked about the common comparison to Du Plessis. ‘When I moved to No 2, he was the guy I wanted to play like. Obviously, I want to be my own type of player, but with aspirations to play like he played.’
It’s a thrilling prospect for South African rugby – but a frightening one for opposition teams – when one considers that Marx is only at the start of his Test rugby journey (having earned his 14th Bok cap against Wales at the end of 2017).
‘Malcolm is a player with a very high ceiling,’ coach Allister Coetzee acknowledged at the start of the Boks’ end-of-year tour. ‘I don’t think he’s at his best just yet, but he has improved tremendously. Obviously he is a fantastic talent with power and pace; he’s very explosive. The big thing for me is the way he has grown at set-piece time – that’s been really good. He still has a lot to learn, but he is a fast learner.’
That eagerness to absorb new knowledge, coupled with a vast array of skills, is also what stood out about Marx during his school career, says Spilhaus.
‘Malcolm has always been a real physical specimen, but I can’t recall any occasion where he just solely relied on brute force. He always had a fantastic skill-set, and would be able to draw a defender and pass, while we’ve seen how effective he is at the breakdown. Malcolm is still a really young player, and is still honing his craft, but there’s no doubt he has what it takes to have a long and successful Test career.’
For Marx, he knows that hard work is the key ingredient if he is to reach such lofty heights, as revealed when he responds to the question about what his goals are for 2018 and beyond.
‘Just constant improvement,’ he answers emphatically. ‘To be a better player, not only on the field, but also off the field. Those are the long-term goals that I am focusing on.’
Watch out, world rugby. We ain’t seen nothing yet!
– This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine