Bongi Mbonambi: The Fighter Who Rose To the Top

Bongi Mbonambi: The Fighter Who Rose To the Top
By BET Contributor

29 October 2019, by: Ludumo Nkabi

Bongi Mbonambi: The Fighter Who Rose To the Top

When Mbongeni Mbonambi lined up as the starting hooker against Wales on Sunday in the Rugby World Cup semifinal, it would have been a special moment especially considering a year ago, it seemed unlikely he would be in the Bok number 2 jersey.

At the beginning of this four-year cycle in 2016, a handful of players were introduced into the Test arena, of all those players, none have had to endure as torrid a time as Bongi Mbonambi, but none in equal measure have had the staying power of Mbonambi.

The fiery hooker joined the Springbok setup under Allister Coetzee when he took over the Springbok coaching reigns. The Bethlehem-born forward began his Bok career as a backup to then Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss.

If there is a player in that Springbok camp that had to bide his time before truly getting the recognition he deserves, it is Mbonambi. The 28-year-old was widely expected to take over the starting hooking berth after serving his apprenticeship behind the then out-going Springbok captain, but things did not go as planned.

2016 in itself was a frustrating period with Bongi often getting less than five minutes off the bench after Strauss had emptied his tank. It would be unfair to blame Coetzee completely that season, the Springboks were in free fall and he perhaps felt that he needed to maximize the output of his captain to get results.

That season had also seen a young and raw Malcolm Marx consistently knocking on the door for Bok selection and Coetzee finally bowed to the pressure and he gave Marx his debut in 2016 Rugby Championship and while he did not displace Mbonambi as 2nd choice, 2017 would be a different ball game.

As mentioned Mbonambi was expected to take the mantle at hooker in 2017, but Marx aided by a strong campaign with Lions in Super Rugby was simply in too rich a vein of form to be consigned to the bench. The former Blue Bulls hooker had to be content being part of the supporting band while Marx belted out the notes to much fanfare.

The Lions hooker would go on to claim the biggest prize in South Africa rugby as he was crowned SA Rugby Player of the Year. Last year was not very different for both, Marx still played a vital cog in the Ellis Park machine that took part in their third consecutive Super Rugby final and is now entrenched in the Bok starting XV under new coach Rassie Erasmus, it was more of the same for Mbonambi, who in the same year almost lost his life due to a burst appendix.

To further add to the narrative that the Stormers hooker was not competent enough to start for the Springboks, in a Rugby Championship game against Australia, he was given a rare start but was pulled off after 34 minutes after an overthrow which was not exclusively his fault.

It felt a lot like the beginning of the end for the 28-year-old, after all, not many who debuted under Allister Coetzee made it into the Rassie era, so perhaps the substitution was an ominous sign of the premature end of an international career. However, much like during the preceding years and during what seemed like a dark period, the Mbonambi light refused to flicker, it just became brighter.

None more so than this season where the front-rower has come of age, not a minute late at 28, he is a front-rower after all, they usually mature like a fine wine – the older, the better.

He stands front and centre at number 2 now, the supremely gifted Malcolm Marx is now subjected to an important supporting role. Roles reversed, but both still contributing to the Bok cause with equal effect, Mbonambi is getting his due reward.

Mbonambi must be given credit for his tenacity and persistence in first getting into the Springbok setup, and not only getting in but fighting to stay. As previously mentioned, several players who entered the Test arena under Coetzee in 2016 have disappeared into obscurity.
And secondly for fighting to get to the top of the chain, his talent always deserved international recognition, but his work ethic and application demanded he ascend to the top and he finds himself there.

A master at the setpiece and a monster around the park, his proficiency at the back of the maul has seen him so many tries for the Boks.
Now a few days away from the World Cup final and with a strong chance of starting for the Springboks in the match that is the culmination of everything the team and Bongi Mbonambi himself having been working towards over the last four years.

It would be fitting that the man who was there after the Heyneke Meyer era was thrust into battle to fight for the game’s biggest crown, not only because he is in imperious form, but because he has endured the worst of times with the Springboks and fought his way out of the abyss and now shines brighter than ever. Bongi Mbonambi has earned the Bok number 2 jersey.