South Africa’s crushing 26-10 victory over a struggling All Blacks side on Saturday was built on raw physicality, set-piece dominance and control of the breakdown.
While the Springbok triumph was very much a team effort, they were inspired by a remarkable performance from their totemic hooker Malcolm Marx on his 50th Test appearance.
After the final whistle, South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber described Marx as “probably the one guy who reinforces what the Springboks are all about”.
Nienaber hit the nail on the head. The South African harrier produced the perfect cocktail of explosive carrying, brutal tackling, precise line-out throwing and, most importantly, world-class jackaling that rendered New Zealand’s attacking play redundant. While Marx’s physicality around the park was crucial, the most important aspect of his game in Nelspruit was his ability at the breakdown.
Whenever the All Blacks got any sort of go-forward, they were stripped of Marx’s technical brilliance. The 28-year-old made several key tackles, destroyed New Zealand’s ruckball and won five penalties in his 55 minutes on the pitch.
It seems almost unbelievable that up to this point Marx has been used mainly as an impact piece to see out the final quarter of games, with Bongi Mbonambi often favored as first choice. On his 50th Test appearance, Marx dominated the breakdown but it took a team effort to thwart New Zealand’s attack.
South Africa’s defense brought tremendous line speed to proceedings, totally suffocating the All Blacks who were playing on the back foot as their forwards failed to get over the gain line. The Springboks didn’t want Marx to be the first tackle to give him an opportunity to get in over the ball.
Whenever the All Blacks were in possession, Marx could be seen lurking in the middle of the field, waiting for his teammates to cut down New Zealand’s carriers. On one occasion, Lukhanyo Am brought down Angus Ta’avao with Marx already in position to latch onto the ball to win a penalty. This was a recurring theme throughout this bruising Test match (see video below).
Historically, winning such penalties has been the province of flankers such as Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Sam Warburton, but front-five forwards are now increasingly among the best jackals in the world game, with Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne destroying the All Blacks at the breakdown. in their last Test series win.
“He doesn’t go chasing dead rucks”
Former Ireland international hooker Bernard Jackman, who has coached professionally with Top 14 outfit Grenoble and Welsh side Dragons, believes Marx is arguably the best exponent of breakdown play in the world.
“One of the great things about Malcolm Marx is that he doesn’t chase dead rucks,” Jackman said. “Some breakdown specialists will compete on almost any debris, which is not a smart thing to do, whereas Marx seems to have a real sixth sense of being able to see past the ball carrier as to who the backers are.
“He asks questions like ‘are the big boys in a good position to clear out or are the backs having to do the dirty work because the forwards are trapped elsewhere?’ So he makes the decision before he competes at the breakdown and decides if he can win a turnover or a penalty.
“Once he locks onto the ball, his lower body strength and ability to get into a really strong position makes him almost immovable. He also paints very good pictures for the referee.
“He’s rarely involved in the tackle and he’s always first. Technically, he’s up there with most open sides let alone front-five forwards.
“He’s like a Sam Warburton, a George Smith or a Josh Kronfeld. He’s up there with the best sevens we’ve seen to be able to dominate the breakdown.”
“You have to make him the tackler”
Marx also made some serious dents in the All Blacks’ defensive line with his carries making 24 metres. Although not massive figures in isolation, Marx is usually used to soften up opposition defenses to create space by sucking defenders into the tackling area.
Perhaps the biggest win for Marx this weekend was to prove he can have just as much of an impact at the breakdown as a starter rather than a replacement, while also making the hard hitting that his hooking rival, Mbonambi, is known for.
“Marx is strong in defense but if I were the All Blacks coaches I’d have my forwards seek him out and run straight at him next weekend,” Jackman said.
“He’s so good at the breakdown that you need to make him the tackler because then he’s on the ground and can’t steal the ball.
“He offers so much elsewhere too. He’s the best scrummaging hooker in the world by a country mile and his throw-in is perfect.
“He’s probably the best hooker in the world at the moment and when he’s in this mood he’s unplayable.”
The All Blacks must find a way to attack Marx this weekend if they are to turn their fortunes around.