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A young Bongi Mbonambi made rugby balls when there were none around

By Ned Lester
Bongi Mbonambi in action. Photo by Getty Images

There were no rugby balls where Springbok Bongi Mbonambi grew up, so he and his friends had to make their own out of orange bags and newspaper.

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The 61-cap hooker’s story of his beginnings in rugby lends further admiration to his role in winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Mbonambi didn’t start in his team’s opening Test against the All Blacks but occupied the No 2 jersey in each of the knockout games, including the final.

Now forming one half of the Springboks’ deadly one-two-punch with Malcolm Marx, Mbonambi signed with the Blue Bulls at 17 before making his Super Rugby debut at 21 against the Crusaders in Pretoria.

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“I grew up in Bohlokong, the kasi of Bethlehem,” Mbonambi told the Springboks Youtube channel. “That’s where I first learnt about rugby when I was ten years old, I played a bit for the school. When I got home, I’d still play rugby with my friends.

“We used to make our own makeshift rugby balls, form the lemoensak (orange bag) with the newspapers into like an oval-shaped thing and then we’d play anywhere, wherever there was an open ground, or in the middle of the road, in the middle of the streets. We’d play almost the whole day until it gets dark.

“In the whole street of Bohlokong where I stayed, there was only two of us who went to a Model C school where there was rugby, and then we’d come back and teach them how to play rugby. We didn’t have grass patches where we could play tackle, so we’d play touchies, but then things would get out of hand and turn into tackle. And that’s how my love for rugby started.”

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Running and tackling on the tarmac and tough dirt surfaces of Bethlehem is sure to instil a level of toughness in a young player, and no doubt strongly contributes to Mbonambi’s stoic on field play for club and country today.

Suffering a burst appendix in February 2018, Mbonambi spent three days in intensive care and was told his season was over, only to don the green and gold Sprinbok jersey four months later in a starting role against England.

“Those are the good memories I have of my first love for rugby. I think rugby saved me from the worst side of life and showed me a better side and I’m glad that I found my passion for it and my love for it.”

Once told he was too small to progress through the ranks of South African Rugby, Mbonambi says he never doubted himself.

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“There was never a time when I doubted my ability,” he told SA Rugby magazine. “Even when some of the coaches were telling me I’d never progress beyond the age-group level.

“One day, I challenged one of those coaches by asking, ‘Why would you say something like that?’ He told me my size would count against me in professional rugby.

“It really hurt to hear that, but then I managed to turn it into a positive. When people tell me I can’t do something it makes me try even harder.”

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