Unstoppable Pieter-Steph du Toit is surely a shoo-in for the SA Rugby Player of the Year award, but Bongi Mbonambi is desperately unlucky to miss out on a nomination in this category, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
After the year the Boks have had – banking the Rugby Championship and World Cup titles – it’s not an easy task to reduce the list of Player of the Year nominees to a group of just five.
You look at the names of Du Toit, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Duane Vermeulen and there can be no real arguments.
In the individual player ratings I tentatively offered after the World Cup, these aforementioned players all received 9-out-of-10 rankings, along with Beast Mtawarira, Siya Kolisi and Mbonambi.
Of course, one has to consider the efforts of the players throughout 2019 and during the past Vodacom Super Rugby season, but it’s Mbonambi who is surely the most unfortunate to not crack a nod on the latest awards list nominations.
When Mbonambi went full Eskom and had his lights go out after suffering a heavy head knock in the World Cup final, he virtually had to be dragged off the field. That’s how desperate Mbonambi was to grit his teeth and contribute to the title decider.
After all, Mbonambi had enjoyed a World Cup campaign that surely went beyond his wildest expectations. Even when the 28-year-old was building up a serious head of steam in the Rugby Championship, it was difficult to see him ousting Malcolm Marx in the No 2 jersey.
As it was, he came off the bench in the World Cup opener against the All Blacks, but the week after he started against Namibia. He scored two tries, and then held down a place in the run-on XV for the remainder of the tournament.
Besides his almost faultless lineout throwing (just one went against the throw on his watch during the entire tournament), he also made 33 tackles with a 100% success rate. His work rate, mobility, powerful scrummaging and presence at the breakdown was off the charts.
In our latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, chief writer and colleague Jon Cardinelli chatted to the Boks’ head of athletic performance, Aled Walters, and asked him which player had stood out at the World Cup in terms of fitness and performance.
This was his answer: ‘Bongi Mbonambi is one of the real success stories. We had a chat before the start of the Super Rugby tournament last year and I was quite critical about his performance. He trained unbelievably hard in response. This year, he performed like an absolute machine from our first day of training in Pretoria. What’s more, he maintained that intensity in the games.’
There’s probably not much more that needs to be said after that sort of ringing endorsement, which provides real insight into just how far Mbonambi has come as a player.
His progression as a hooker was also a major trump card for the Boks in that it enabled them to keep Malcolm Marx fresh and hungry, while deploying him with maximum impact off the bench.
In fact, when Marx came on in the final, he did so with the aggression of a rampaging bull being let out of a claustrophobic pen. Lest we forget, it was his sleight-of-hand pass that featured in the buildup to Makazole Mapimpi’s historic opening try and it was his bone-crunching tackle that jarred the ball loose before it was tidied up and sent to Cheslin Kolbe to score the match clincher.
Basically, through Mbonambi’s evolution, the Springboks were able to brutalise opponents up front with Beast Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe alongside him, before bringing on the fresh legs of Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch.
No wonder the England front row looked to be quaking in their boots for most of the final. And by the time another fresh front row came on, they might as well have just thrown in the towel.
In fact, the Boks’ front-row bullying was so severe that some misguided pundits even suggested after the final that England coach Eddie Jones should have found a way to render the scrums uncontested.
What a cop-out that would have been, but I digress. The long and short of it is that Mbonambi was undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes of the Springboks’ World Cup campaign.
His progression as a player has been nothing short of remarkable over the last 18 months, and there’s surely every reason to still celebrate the humble hooker as one of SA’s Players of the Year.
Photo: EPA/Yoan Valat