Bongi Mbonambi set to battle Stormers, as Sharks deal with Eben Etzebeth absence

Springbok Bongi Mbonambi could make his long awaited return when the Sharks take on the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship this weekend

Springbok Bongi Mbonambi could make his long awaited return when the Sharks take on the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship this weekend. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP

Published Feb 15, 2024

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Sharks coach John Plumtree is cagey about which Springboks he will deploy against the Stormers at Kings Park on Saturday (5.05pm kick-off), but the one bone that he threw to the media was the gentleman sitting next to him at Tuesday’s media conference.

“Lukhanyo (Am) will be there, but otherwise you will have to wait until Friday when we announce our team. Otherwise, Eben (Etzebeth) has had a small operation on his knee, while Bongi Mbonambi is at last ready to play his first game of the season for us (he was injured early in the World Cup final),” the Kiwi said.

Plumtree made it clear at the press conference that he is unamused at having had to pick under-strength Sharks teams since he began his second tenure at the Shark Tank in July last year.

Injuries have played a major role – Bok prop Vincent Koch is another who has been injured since the World Cup – but so have Springbok protocols, and Plumtree feels that the status quo for South Africa’s top players is a mess.

“The resting of Boks is not ideal, but we understand the importance of it,” he said. “These boys have got a long season of playing northern hemisphere rugby and southern hemisphere rugby, which is crazy, isn’t it?

“Until the players are committed to one hemisphere, there’ll be a lot of disruption, and hopefully that will change over the next couple of years.”

Plumtree will thus not have the firepower of loosehead Ox Nche, but Am will lead the team (he barely played in the second half of last year because of injury).

Am said the only way is up in the URC for the 16th-placed Sharks, who have just one win from their opening nine league matches, with nine more to go.

“Unfortunately it has been a slow start for us in the league, but I am really happy with where we are at the moment after some good wins in the Challenge Cup,” the 30-year-old outside centre said of their big defeats of Oyonnax and the Dragons.

“Those wins have kick-started our season. Our confidence is growing, There is hope for the future. There is a massive improvement.

“Even in the URC games that were not going our way, we were displaying good performances. It’s just that we didn’t get the results.

“Now it is starting to stick, we are starting to convert, we are starting to grow as a team. It’s looking good for us. Hopefully, we will build and get more wins under the belt.

“Hosting the Stormers at home is very big for us,” the World Cup winner added.

“We are looking forward to playing our big rivals. It is our annual Shark Fest weekend, and there should be a big crowd. All derby games in South Africa are massive.”

On a personal note, Am is thrilled to be playing regularly once more. He made it to the last World Cup through the back door by replacing the injured Makazole Mapimpi, but the good form of Jesse Kriel meant he didn’t get onto the pitch in France.

“Being part of it was special,” Am said. “I was playing a different role, preparing the boys, which was good.

“I enjoyed watching us win the World Cup. It was very special for the country. But I am really happy being back on the pitch, being fit, and able to perform for the Sharks.

“I am feeling confident with my knee, with my fitness and my form. I am in a good space, and can’t wait for Saturday.”

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