In the second installment of a three-part series on Bongi Mbonambi, the Springbok hooker opens up about a career-threatening appendectomy and the white lie he told Rassie Erasmus before the Test series against England in 2018. JON CARDINELLI reports.
After sitting on the Vodacom Bulls bench for three seasons, Mbomambi travelled to the Stormers with the aim of reviving his career.
‘The Bulls situation wasn’t working out. I went to the Stormers because I saw an opportunity with Tiaan Liebenberg and Deon Fourie leaving,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.
‘I couldn’t hang around as fourth or fifth choice at the Bulls. My parents backed my decision. I knew that I would have to work for my opportunity, as there were still a few good hookers left at the Stormers, like Scarra Ntubeni and others. I knew that I had a fight on my hands.
‘I had heard a lot about Cape Town and what a nice life it is down here with all the beaches and nightclubs and so on. I knew I wouldn’t make it if I allowed myself to fall into that trap.
‘I put a lot of energy into a local church and stayed away from all the other stuff. That gave me a solid foundation for a balanced lifestyle. I could focus on working hard and making the most out of my opportunity at the Stormers.’
Mbonambi earned a call-up to the Bok squad in 2016 on the back of two impressive campaigns with the Cape side. Unfortunately, he started just one Test across the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
‘It felt like my time at the Bulls all over again,’ he says with a shake of the head.
A new wave of optimism swept across the nation when Erasmus rejoined the SA Rugby set-up in late 2017. The players set out to impress the new coach during the early rounds of the 2018 Super Rugby tournament and few made as big an impact as Mbonambi did with the Stormers.
Life isn’t fair, though, and it wasn’t long before he was faced with his greatest challenge yet. Mbonambi was rushed to hospital after his appendix burst and was forced to spend three days in ICU. When he awoke, the doctors told him that his season, if not his career, was over.
‘It was a scary time,’ he remembers. ‘At one point I was worrying about how I was going to support my young family. My wife Anastacia was a pillar of strength. She got everyone at my church to pray and it inspired me to see all those people getting behind me.
‘I took it day by day from there. I tried to be positive. Slowly but surely I returned to the gym and tried to rebuild the 10kg I’d lost. Then I got the surprise of my life when Rassie invited me to the first Springbok alignment camp of the year. At that stage, I couldn’t even run.
‘Myself and Eben Etzebeth bumped into Rassie at the airport and we got chatting. There I was, wondering what I was doing at an alignment camp with the new Bok coach. I had been told by my doctor that I wouldn’t play rugby again that year.
‘All of sudden Rassie asked me, “Will you be ready to play against England?” Looking back, it was a huge moment in my career. I reacted on instinct and told him that I’d be good to go.
‘After we parted ways, I started to worry about what I’d done, but if I didn’t say yes, he would have asked someone else. I wasn’t sure I would get another chance like that in future.’
Several weeks before the start of the Test season, Mbonambi met with his doctor for a checkup. He was told there was a slight risk of the wound tearing and of contracting an infection. Nevertheless, he made his comeback for Western Province in the SuperSport Challenge later the same day.
‘My wife was a bit nervous about the whole situation. I was, too, but I’d worked too hard in the gym and come too far to stop at that point. It became a simple choice of now or never.
‘I played 40 minutes for WP and was back with the Stormers the following week. I wasn’t sure if I had played enough to convince Rassie that I was ready to start against England [Malcolm Marx was ruled out through injury at that stage], but he stuck to his word.’
Over the course of the 2018 season, Mbonambi gained a better understanding of Erasmus’ methods and management style. The entire group started to embrace a new culture and gameplan.
‘Rassie doesn’t judge you on your physical performance alone. He wants to see what’s beneath, whether you’ve got that warrior spirit. I started to notice that in the other players around me. We probably weren’t the most talented group, but there was definitely something else there.’
‘Ultimate Warrior’ first appeared in the March edition of SA Rugby magazine. The final instalment of the three-part series – in which Mbonambi talks about the 2019 World Cup campaign, Siya Kolisi’s inspirational leadership, and Jacques Nienaber’s ambitions for 2020 and beyond – will be published on Friday, 13 March.
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