How do the Springboks cope without arguably their most important player?
It’s the news every South African rugby fan was dreading. Rumours had already started circulating late on Wednesday night. But surely they couldn’t be true. Malcolm Marx injured? Something in the subcortex wouldn’t allow this to be computed. Rugby players go for scans all the time. It’s just a precaution. He’ll be fine.
Except, he isn’t fine. And now the defending world champions must continue their campaign without arguably their most important player. “Marx ruled out of the World Cup,” came the sobering email at 09:05 this morning. A “long-term knee injury,” it said. Apparently he went down in contact in training.
What exactly does this blow mean for South Africa? For starters, it puts into sharp focus the decision to take only two bonafide hookers to France. This looks especially foolhardy given the inclusion of four scrum-halves among the 33.
Deon Fourie – who has been named as the reserve hooker for the game against Romania on Sunday – has some experience in the middle of the front row, and Marco van Staden has been practicing his line-out throws in training. But this is akin to a Porsche dealership loaning you a Toyota Corolla after you’ve pranged your 911 Turbo.
The stats reveal that Marx is so much more than someone who scrums and throws the ball to tall jumpers. Of all the hookers who have played more than 750 minutes since 2020, no one else has won more jackal turnovers per game – 1.3 – or turnovers of any sort per game – 1.5 – than Marx.
He gets over the gainline with 61% of his carries and averages nine per game. He makes almost 10 tackles per match with an average above 90%. His efficiency at defensive rucks is an impressive 27% and he makes a whopping 20.8 metres per game with ball in hand.
South Africa have lost a player who fulfils so many roles that it doesn’t really matter what number he’s wearing on his back. He’s a front rower, a back rower and, at times, even a rampaging inside centre when the game opens up and he finds himself in the backline.
Bongi Mbonambi is an able deputy. He is perhaps the most improved Springbok over the last four years. That is not damning with faint praise. He is a World Cup winner and has a British & Lions Series winner’s medal so his resume can’t be disputed. Still, he has taken his game to a level that few could have predicted. He has been rewarded with a leadership role and will captain the Springboks this weekend.
And yet, he is no Marx. Apart from scrum success percentage and the number of penalties he concedes per 80 minutes, there isn’t a metric where he betters Marx. How could he? Marx is 189cm tall and weighs 115kg. Mbonambi is 175cm tall and weighs 108kg. It’s a cliche to say it, but with everything else being equal, the larger man almost always comes out on top on the rugby field.
What to do now? A replacement will almost certainly be called upon. Joseph Dweba is the likely next cab off the rank. He’s a solid scrummager, a tenacious ball carrier and aggressive in the tackle. But he’s a few rungs short of the incumbents. What’s more, his line-out accuracy is a major concern and if Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus adhere to their proven Bomb Squad tactic, whoever steps up as the hooker off the bench will have to maintain the standard set by Mbonambi. Would any South African fan place their faith in Dweba hitting a jumper at the back with a minute to go and a game on the line? Not likely.
Less than a year ago, Erasmus effectively cut Dweba from his plans. “He had opportunities during the  Rugby Championship,” the Springboks’ director of rugby said. The 172cm, 100kg Stormers hooker returned for a couple of cameos – 19 minutes against Australia in July this year, 27 minutes in the World Cup warm-up against Argentina in August – but he failed to impress. There’s a reason Erasmus and Nienaber opted for two genuine hookers. If they believed they had a third worthy of his place in the group they would have selected him.
This is of course part of a wider malaise that has curtailed South Africa’s title defence. Four years ago Marx was the team’s most influential hooker. Handre Pollard was the undisputed leader of the backline and perhaps the country’s most complete fly-half of all-time. Lood de Jager was the line-out general and Lukhanyo Am at outside centre was in the form of his life and making a claim to being the best player on the planet.
Marx, though, is the biggest loss of all. Manie Libbok might not have the same radar off the tee as Pollard but his ceiling with ball in hand is potentially higher. Jesse Kriel doesn’t have the same touch as Am but his defensive nous is unmatched. And there is enough cover in the second row that de Jager’s absence has hardly been felt.
Without Marx, South Africa, at present the bookie’s favourites to win the tournament after demolishing Scotland in second gear, are instantly an outside bet. Ireland, New Zealand and France, who themselves have been waylaid by injuries to a front-rower, lock, fly-half and centre, won’t fear the South African pack as much without the bruiser from Johannesburg. There’s still a lot of hefty men knocking about, but, apart from Eben Etzebeth, who is carrying a shoulder niggle himself, none pack the same punch.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Join Free