Bok coach Rassie Erasmus faces a complex selection decision when it comes to picking the backup players to provide cover for star hooker Malcolm Marx, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Ironically, the easiest decision Erasmus is likely to face when it comes to selection at the start of this season will be to pencil down the name of Marx in that No 2 jersey for the all-important June Test series against England.
The adulation for Marx crosses borders. With the Lions on tour in Australia over the past fortnight, the fawning broadcasters have lavished praise on the dynamic hooker as if watching one of their own kids excelling for the 1st XV.
‘He has to be the leading hooker in the world right now,’ one commentator enthused on Saturday, stopping just short of shouting: ‘That’s my boy!’
The understandable flattery is likely to continue in New Zealand as the Lions now get set to take on the Hurricanes and Highlanders. Just last year, the New Zealand Herald newspaper had little hesitation in handing Marx a 10 out of 10 rating after his dominant display for the Boks against New Zealand in Cape Town.
Indeed, in the absence of injured All Blacks star Dane Coles, Marx’s admirers are not wrong in suggesting he must be regarded as the best of the rest when it comes to ranking the top hookers in world rugby.
Having said all that, the real headache for Erasmus will come when deciding on who should provide cover for the 23-year-old. One can’t overlook the fact that Marx started 12 out of 13 Tests last year, and has again carried a heavy workload for the Lions in Super Rugby this season. The time will come when he needs a rest.
For most of last year, Bongi Mbonambi capably deputised as the back-up to Marx at national level. Yet, in the blink of a burst appendix, the unfortunate Mbonambi has yet to hook a ball in anger this season.
Beyond Mbonambi, former Bok coach Allister Coetzee generally backed veteran Chiliboy Ralepelle as the third-choice hooker in the squad. However, he spent so much time carrying tackle bags last year that he couldn’t find his way back into the Sharks’ Currie Cup squad during the 2017 playoffs.
To be fair, it was a harsh call on Ralepelle – and one that he seemed to take exception to – but the experienced front-ranker has subsequently looked in solid form and fitness for the Sharks this Super Rugby season.
Yet it all gets interesting when one reflects on the latest musings from Erasmus during his media engagements last week. By the sounds of it, the new Bok coach retains the belief that veteran 79-Test cap Springbok Bismarck du Plessis could well make a valuable contribution as a mentor to Marx.
Pretty much from the start of Marx’s Test career, he has had to fend off comparisons to the bullocking Bismarck, but the similarities are undeniable: big, strong, uncompromising, physical, mobile and menacing at the breakdown.
There surely can’t be any argument that Marx would only benefit from learning a few extra tricks of the trade from a leader such as Du Plessis, who – lest we forget – is still performing impressively for French club Montpellier.
But if Erasmus opts to bring back one veteran such as the 33-year-old Du Plessis, would there be space for the latest dark horse, Adriaan Strauss?
The 32-year-old Bulls hooker has wound back the clock over the past few weeks to rediscover the sort of form and fitness that belies the mileage that he has clocked up on the old rugby odometer.
By Strauss’ own admission, he is loving his rugby again and playing with a smile on his dial. It’s even got him seriously thinking about reversing his decision to retire from Test rugby, while Erasmus would appear to be an advocate of such a U-turn.
‘Adriaan Strauss wasn’t at the initial [Bok alignment] camp, but he is playing so well it would be stupid to ignore him,’ Erasmus revealed rather tellingly last week.
It’s an interesting selection conundrum. Marx may be in the rare position of enjoying relative comfort at the head of the hooker pecking order, but on the rungs below, an increasingly complex conundrum is hotting up.
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