Marx too good to ignore

Malcolm Marx forced his way into the Springbok squad, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

On a warm afternoon in Nelspruit, Malcolm Marx stands imposingly alongside his teammates at a Springbok training session before their opening Test of this year’s Rugby Championship.

Forming part of the Bok squad for the first time in his fledgling career, the burly 22-year-old looks quite at ease as he is put through a number of team drills, with his supreme physicality and athleticism clear to see.

Indeed, Marx’s ability to marry pace with power is what set him apart throughout this year’s Super Rugby season, in which the youngster played a total of 759 minutes as he established himself as the Lions’ first-choice hooker.

To illustrate his influence in a powerful Lions pack, his season statistics reveal a dramatic story. In fact, some of his figures would be the envy of many backline players. As it is, Marx scored four tries, made 14 clean breaks, beat 18 defenders, ran 412m and won 11 turnovers.

Impressively, he also conceded just the solitary penalty all season, while missing only seven tackles for a successful completion rate of 90%.

Most importantly, though, Marx’s all-round contributions were complemented by impressive performances at the set pieces, with the Lions’ strong scrum and steady lineout providing a solid platform for their attacking brand of rugby.

It’s a point that was highlighted by former Bok coach Nick Mallett after Marx’s starring performance during the Lions’ resounding quarter-final win over the Crusaders in July.

‘His tight phases are amazing. His throwing at the lineouts,his driving play, his tackling and his scrumming are excellent. The props next to him must feel incredibly secure. He is going to push Adriaan Strauss very hard this year [for the Springbok No 2 jersey]. The big difference between Marx and Bismarck du Plessis is that Marx is appreciably faster around the field. Bismarck is a powerful but slow player; he’s more like another prop. This guy 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.’

With that endorsement in mind, it’s interesting to take cognisance of the fact Marx made the transition from flank to hooker only in his final year of schooling, having matriculated from KES along with teammates Cyle Brink and Dylan Smith.

Blessed with natural talent and imposing size, Marx was one of the rising stars on the Lions’ rugby horizon from a young age. He featured in the 2011 and 2012 Craven Weeks, and went on to earn selection for the SA Academy team in 2011 and SA Schools side in 2012.

Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who has overseen the rise of Marx into the senior set-up, tells SA Rugby magazine that his raw potential was evident at an early stage.

‘I first saw Malcolm as an U16 player, and even though he was obviously still very young, you could see even then that he had size on his side, while at U19 level, when I saw him at the Lions, it was clear he had impressive physical abilities. He’s become an accomplished all-round player.

‘It was good for his career to move from flank to hooker. A lot of the modern-day hookers have made that transition at some point in their careers, and it certainly helps with their skills.’

Understandably, with Marx having honed his all-round attributes as a hooker who contributes not only in the tight phases, but also at the breakdown and as a ball-carrier in open play, he has drawn regular comparisons with Du Plessis, who served as the Springboks’ front-row enforcer for so long.

However, Marx has already begun to blaze his own trail, with the talented hooker featuring for the SA A side against the England Saxons in June before earning his first Bok call-up after playing an integral role in the Lions’ progression to the Super Rugby final.

Reflecting on Marx’s journey to the top, Ackermann suggests that the 2014 season was a career-defining one as he made his Super Rugby and Currie Cup debuts, while fine-tuning his primary roles as a hooker.

‘That season was a big learning experience for Malcolm. His set phases and his conditioning improved. This year, he’s done really well in the set phases, although it was also important for the forward pack to fire as a unit.’

The importance of Marx’s role for the Lions this season was amplified when the experienced Robbie Coetzee suffered a serious knee injury at the start of the Super Rugby season. Ackermann acknowledges that Marx came of age in the Lions’ time of need.

‘The team needs to perform to assist the individual, so credit to the team; but as an individual you need to do your part. In Super Rugby, and in any game, the set phases are so important, and Malcolm was part of the base we needed to play from. Individually he had a good campaign, and collectively as forwards we needed to perform. It was also especially important for Malcolm to step up in Robbie’s absence, and, as a young kid, he did just that.’

By the end of the Super Rugby season, Marx’s form was simply too good to ignore at national level, with Allister Coetzee reiterating that the youngster needed to be integrated into the Springbok set-up sooner rather than later.

Ackermann agrees that Marx ‘has the ability to play at national level and to make a success of it’, while at a time when South African rugby has ebbed to worrying lows, he remains one of the shining young prospects who has all the potential to spark a bright new dawn.

‘We still have to look at Malcolm and work with him, but there’s no doubt he has the talent and potential.

‘It just shows how things work in life. You wouldn’t have known whether Malcolm would have played as well as he has and been rewarded with a place if Robbie Coetzee wasn’t injured. Robbie was in the training group when the Boks were overseas in 2014, but Malcolm has taken his opportunities and I’m happy we could have him.

‘It’s six games [in the Rugby Championship] and that’s how we look at it – certain players will get an opportunity and hopefully Malcolm will get his chance and see what he can do at Test level.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Craig Lewis