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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Franco Mostert must bring the heat to stop the giant French pack

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Cape Town – Before the Springboks’ last Test against France in 2018, Bongi Mbonambi already had 23 caps to his name.

But don’t be fooled by that – he had been given only four starts since making his debut against Ireland in Gqeberha in June 2016.

While he was renowned for his energetic displays – where he was a robust character who never took a step backwards as a powerful ball-carrier and defender – there were some question marks about his lineout throwing skills.

The same doubts were swirling around his great rival for the Bok No 2 jersey, Malcolm Marx, but the then-Lions player had been handed 18 starts out of 21 Tests in a similar time period to Mbonambi’s international career.

But exactly to the day four years ago, Mbonambi planted the seed that would lead to him becoming the first-choice at the 2019 World Cup ahead of Marx with a remarkable late cameo against the French at the Stade de France in Paris.

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With the South Africans trailing 26-22, Mbonambi was sent on by then coach Rassie Erasmus after 72 minutes, and he produced unerring accuracy under tremendous pressure in feeding four consecutive lineouts in the French 22 as the Boks hunted a maul try.

The five-pointer eventually came, with the replacement hooker breaking away from a drive to score the winning try.

The rest, as they say, is history, as the Boks went on to clinch the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan the following year.

Marx, though, has enjoyed a resurgence in form in 2022, and coupled with a few injury issues affecting Mbonambi, the former loose forward has become the established hooker.

Jacques Nienaber’s team, though, saw their driving maul stopped in its tracks by Ireland in last weekend’s 19-16 defeat in Dublin. Even though it didn’t always appear to be legal, the home team managed to “swim around” and get in among the Bok forwards to halt their drives.

To make matters worse, Ireland scored their own maul try through flank Josh van der Flier, which would have hurt the Boks’ ego.

Nienaber responded by making three changes to the tight-five for tomorrow’s clash against the French in Marseille (10pm kickoff), with Mbonambi, Ox Nche and Franco Mostert coming in for Marx, Steven Kitshoff and the injured Lood de Jager.

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The Bok coach will hope that Mbonambi can rediscover that punch that he added to the forwards against France four years ago at the Stade Velodrome tomorrow, as they will be up against a massive home pack.

Mbonambi is just 1.75m tall and weighs in at around 108kg, although his abrasive style belies those stats. French hooker Julien Marchand is bigger at 1.81m and 108kg, and the considerable presence of New Zealand-born tighthead prop Uini Atonio (1.97m and 152kg) makes their pack a force to be reckoned with.

Locks Thibaud Flament (2.03m and 116kg) and Cameron Woki (1.96m and 109kg) offer different skills in the lineouts and tight-loose, while loosehead Cyril Baille (1.82m and 115kg) will get stuck in as well.

But can the 31-year-old Mbonambi – who now has 53 Test caps – inspire the Boks once more against France? If he does, it won’t only benefit the team, but also enhance his chances of reclaiming the No 2 jersey on a more permanent basis …


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