Now, months later, Mbonambi will be in the starting lineup for the final on Saturday. He has played in five of South Africa’s six matches at the World Cup already, starting in four of them ahead of Malcolm Marx, who was one of five finalists last year for world rugby player of the year. And he has scored three tries in the tournament. But Mbonambi has also played a different, more important role.
Mbonambi, who is black, is an example of the changes taking place in South African rugby. Officially, the efforts at integrating what was once a largely white sport are called “transformation.” Ultimately, they involve people like Mbonambi.
Previous South African governments have tried to impose strict quotas on the Springboks, as the national rugby team is known, and also on domestic squads in an effort to improve their diversity. But the new sports minister, Nathi Mthethwa, appears to have moved away from quotas.
At the same time, Erasmus, the Springboks’ coach, has earned the respect of players across the racial spectrum for dealing with their selection in a more transparent way than his predecessors. Since taking charge, he has given many black and mixed-race players opportunities at all positions, and last year he appointed Siya Kolisi as the national team’s first black captain.
“To me and everyone in this team, it doesn’t really matter about your skin color or where you come from,” Mbonambi said. “Rassie will pick a guy who is there to work hard and does the job perfectly well, and you earn your way into this team.”
In the past, Mbonambi said, “you would pick someone who has been there for years, even though we can see he is not pulling his weight.”
“Now,” he continued, “you get picked by the work that you do, and how you execute it.”
Erasmus has in the past expressed personal regret about not meeting the so-called transformation target of 50 percent nonwhite players on the Springboks; there are 11 black or mixed-race players on the 31-man roster he brought to Japan and as many as eight have started in a match. Six will start Saturday’s final.