Come on Rassie, give us the true story about Mbonambi
Was the hooker really exhausted or injured? If so, what was he doing on the field in the first place?
On the 2002 Tri Nations tour to New Zealand and Australia I witnessed one of the most embarrassing and mortifying experiences for a Springbok player.
Prop Lawrence Sephaka was selected to start against the All Blacks in Wellington, and was yanked off the field by coach Rudolf Straeuli 28 minutes into the match. It was shameful public humiliation for the player, who bore the scars of that incident in the days, weeks and years that followed.
Later in that tour, waiting to board a plane at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport, I found myself queued among several Boks, including Sephaka. Several autograph hunters came over brandishing their scraps of paper or match programmes to get a scribble from one of the players. The players obliged but when one of the autograph seekers saw Sephaka was next to sign, he skipped the prop as if he didn’t exist.
Witnessing this exchange, I was embarrassed and stunned. To his eternal credit, wing Dean Hall then refused to sign the man’s programme when approached next. The big wing politely told the man off. The situation was awkward for all, but mortifying for Sephaka, who just shrugged as if that kind of humiliation was not new.
After all Straeuli had selected him to start and then hauled him off just over a quarter of the way into the biggest rugby Test a Bok player could play. Although Sephaka wore the green and gold a further 21 times, Straeuli’s actions tarnished his reputation.
This past weekend Rassie Erasmus did the same to hooker Bongi Mbonambi after 34 minutes of the Rugby Championship loss to Australia. Mbonambi was enjoying a decent match until a long throw on the Boks’ line, which was called by either captain Siya Kolisi, Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth or Pieter-Steph du Toit. More than likely it was a combination of all of the above.
For a start it was a bad call with a wet ball in tough conditions. The throw was off target, Kolisi failed to react quickly enough, and Australia centre Matt Toomua scored the easiest try he’ll ever score in Test rugby.
Minutes later Mbonambi was substituted.
Now, there is nothing wrong with a coach making tough calls if he believes they are necessary and are either an attempt to improve the performance, or punish the player for a mistake. That is his prerogative as the man in charge.
But afterwards Erasmus made what was a tough situation worse by claiming the following: “Bongi hasn’t played a lot and you could see he was struggling. The deal, and you can ask the boys, is that everybody plays as long as he can and if he is struggling I would put someone else on. I even did it with the captain (Kolisi) in June against England. It was definitely not for the overthrow, that was more a combination between Siya and the guys.”
If the intention was somehow to protect Mbonambi by claiming he had “emptied the tank” less than half way through a Test, Erasmus only succeeded in sullying his reputation further.
How is it possible for an elite professional player to have emptied the tank after 34 minutes? The coach has not claimed he was injured; nor did he claim Mbonambi carried an injury into the match. So we can only take him at face value that Mbonambi was exhausted.
We have been asked to accept that an international hooker, who played nearly every minute of every Test against England in June, with only 40 minutes of rugby under his belt in the three months prior to that series because he missed 12 weeks following a burst appendix, was suddenly too unfit to play in a game at sea level last weekend?
Mbonambi sat on the bench for the first two Tests of the Rugby Championship against Argentina, which followed nearly a month off after the Stormers failed to make the Super Rugby playoffs. How can he be so unfit?
If all this is true, then serious questions have to be asked about Mbonambi’s professionalism. But if it’s not true, then serious questions have to be asked about Erasmus’s.
All we want is honesty and, if Erasmus was being honest, then Mbonambi should never have started because he was unfit. If he was yanked because of a serious mistake, then the coach should have said so.