Malcolm Marx starts his first Test since the Rugby World Cup opener against the All Blacks in 2019. There is no reason to believe that he won’t thrive against the Pumas, writes Oliver Keohane.
If there was ever an individual within the Springbok setup who could be singled out as embodying the ‘team-first’ ethos that has so clearly been created in the last three years, it is Malcolm Marx.
Considered by the end of 2018 to potentially be the best hooker in the world, Marx’s role as incumbent starting Springbok hooker very quickly shifted to accommodate the rising form of Bongi Mbonambi and an 80 minute double act, in which the Springbok coaching staff felt the power scrumming of Mbonambi would be ideally suited to start a Test and the dynamic all-round skill set of Marx, in the role of super sub, could make for the most potent hooker combination. The coaches weren’t wrong and the duo blossomed as the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, relying on this axis.
The formula also worked a treat against the British & Irish Lions and the Boks won the series.
The selection was, and is, in line with everything that Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been working on in terms of creating the strongest possible Match-day 23 for every Springbok Test, and further than that an interchangeable wider squad of 36. The initial and successful effect was the birth of the famed Bomb Squad at the 2019 RWC, in which Marx featured prominently, and in 2021 the effect has extended to a Springbok squad boasting exceptional positional depth.
The theory of this approach to selection is great, but the practice needs buy in from the players in order to work, and in the past this hasn’t always been the case. Marx’s rapid role switch from undisputed starter to invaluable replacement could easily have led to a fracture in the squad. Instead, Marx’s professionalism and team ethic values ensured it became one of the Boks’s playing strengths.
Marx’s embracing of his new role was testament to the quality of his character, and the consistent impact that he has maintained in being the Springboks dynamic second-half-hooker is testament to his qualities as a player.
Marx would be more than comfortable in every starting team in the world, but the Springboks just happen to have the luck of two players of equal value, whose skillsets point them in the direction of the first and second half of a game respectively. Mbonambi is rated as the stronger scrummager and the more direct ball carrier, and his responsibility to apply these skillsets at the start of each match is clear. Equally, Marx’s physical attributes of being more mobile, quicker and better over the ball make him the perfect super-sub against tiring packs.
Throw recent debutant Joseph Dweba into the mix and you have another hooker in the Springbok setup who appears to be able to slot seamlessly into the dynamic that has been created. While Dweba’s industrious performances recently suggest a more Mbonambi-like style of play, there will without doubt be an identification of exactly how he fits the mould going forward.
What Dweba has allowed in the meantime, is more flexibility to the Springboks’ hooker structures. Instead of every game starting with Mbonambi on the field and Marx on the bench, the coaches now have the luxury of mixing up selections based on their opponents.
When Malcolm Marx starts on Saturday he will be the third hooker to start for the Springboks in as many Tests, after Dweba started in last week’s 32-12 win over Argentina and Mbonambi started the week before in the Springboks’ series-winning match against the British & Irish Lions.
The presence of a substitute hooker that is equally capable and threatening acts as an insurance policy of sorts to allow the starting hooker to empty the tank. Marx patiently waiting on the bench meant that Bongi never had to worry about going longer than 60 minutes tops. This weekend, with Mbonambi on the bench, Marx has the opportunity for the first time in a long time to go full throttle from kick off.
Marx did not move to the bench because he stopped being a brilliant starting hooker. The Springbok management just identified very early on that they could get the best out of two world class hookers by introducing Marx as an impact player.
Marx’s performance against the All Blacks at the end of 2017 is memorable not only as his best performance to date, but possibly one of the most complete matches ever played by a hooker. He wore Number 2. Those who remember the World Cup final will remember that although it was 16 that Marx was wearing, he played the majority of the match after Bongi left the field concussed, 20 minutes into the first half.
And while his recent role has been as an impact player, Marx has in fact started 24 of his 35 tests.
With this in mind, there is no reason that Marx shouldn’t thrive again wearing the Number 2 jersey in the same way that he has done wearing Number 16 over the last few years.
Since debuting for the Springboks Malcolm Marx has quietly but emphatically embraced and executed every task asked of him within the team set up, and come Saturday he has the chance to do so again, in the starting XV.
WATCH: Marx’s performance against the All Blacks in 2017