In the final instalment of a three-part series on Bongi Mbonambi, the Springbok hooker reflects on the 2019 World Cup campaign, Siya Kolisi’s inspirational leadership, and Jacques Nienaber’s ambitions for 2020 and beyond. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Mbonambi’s faith in Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus was put to the test after an incident in the 2018 Rugby Championship match in Brisbane. The Boks botched a lineout feed on their own tryline shortly before half time and the Wallabies went on to score a game-changing try. Erasmus replaced Mbonambi with Malcolm Marx.
‘Rassie was transparent throughout that ordeal,’ says the hooker. ‘When it happened, I felt I had cost the team in a big way. Rassie picked up on my body language straight away and pulled me off.
‘That said, I was quite emotional and confronted Rassie in the change room at half time. He told me I was reacting too slowly and I had to come off.
‘The team ran out after half time but I stayed behind for a few minutes to process what I’d heard. Rassie had to introduce someone else who could bring more energy to the team. It wasn’t only about me.’
Erasmus’ plan for Mbonambi and the team became clearer in the 2019 Rugby Championship. The players were told who would start in each of the three Tests well ahead of the tournament and Erasmus kept his promise to back Mbonambi in the starting XV. Mbonambi and several other forwards repaid that faith by pummelling their Argentinian counterparts into submission.
A couple of months later, he starred for the Boks in the World Cup playoffs in Japan.
‘Rassie encouraged us to forget all the sideshows and let the main thing stay the main thing. By then we were already behind him and his philosophy. He’d kept his word about starting players throughout the Rugby Championship. When you see a coach sticking to his promises it gives you more confidence in him and it encourages you to play harder for him. If he’s backing you, you have to repay his faith in you.’
Mbonambi still marvels at Erasmus’ decision to appoint Siya Kolisi as captain. The Stormers flank became the first black African to lead the Boks in a Test match in 2018. Last year, Kolisi and the most transformed South African team in history celebrated on the winners podium following their victory in the World Cup final.
‘We grew a great deal on that journey,’ Mbonambi says. ‘We grew closer as brothers and a family.
‘When you see a guy like Rassie backing a guy like Siya … I don’t think anyone could have predicted that. But Rassie is a guy who thinks outside the box. He told Siya that he would lead the Boks and that we would win the World Cup. Everyone jumped on that. It was suddenly a case of “Let’s go do this!”
‘The senior players bought into it and started helping Siya. It was a journey and by the end Siya had started to realise his potential as a leader. The whole world got to see what kind of leader he is in the final.
‘Behind the scenes, he was a key man in terms of keeping us all aligned. His attitude to everything was inspirational. He often didn’t finish a game, as the coach had another plan to use the bench in the final quarter. You never saw Siya complaining. He bought into the plan. He knew that he couldn’t just think about his own game. It was much bigger than that.’
Mbonambi delivered a powerful performance against England in the decider. His time on the field was cut short, however, after he received a blow to the head in the first half.
‘The team doctor, Konrad von Hagen, and I had an argument about it on the side of the field,’ he chuckles. ‘I didn’t want to leave, as I felt I had more than 20 minutes of rugby to give my country. Doc tried to explain that there was no way I could go back on.
‘When I look back, those first 20 minutes were massive in the context of the game. The first two scrums were huge. Beast Mtawarira, what a legend, he was pumped up. I gave everything while I was out there and I’m proud of what I achieved.’
It wasn’t long after the World Cup trophy presentation that Erasmus made mention of the next challenge. The Bok coach spoke about planning for the 2020 Test season and building towards an epic series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.
In one sense, the World Cup triumph was the start rather than the end of a special journey. Erasmus will remain involved for the next four years as South Africa’s director of rugby. Jacques Nienaber has been elevated to the position of head coach and most of the management team has been retained.
Fitness permitting, the bulk of the playing squad will be available for the foreseeable future. There is healthy competition within the group and a prevailing attitude that nobody is entitled to a starting place.
‘What I enjoy about coaches like Rassie and Jacques is that they don’t pick players on reputation,’ says Mbonambi.
‘I’m not going to be selected for the Boks because I’m Bongi Mbonambi or because I’ve won a World Cup. Myself and every one of those players who succeeded in Japan have to show the coaches that being a Springbok still means something to us.
‘It’s a mindset,’ Mbonambi adds unaware that he’s summing up an approach that’s defined his career. ‘You never stop fighting. You go out there and you treat every game as if it’s your last.’
‘Ultimate Warrior’ first appeared in the March edition of SA Rugby magazine.
Photos: Getty Images/Gallo Images/Steve Haag Sports/HolywoodBets