Scarra Ntubeni has suffered, worked through and come back from injuries more times than he’d probably care to remember.
The hooker has consequently struggled to build on several dynamic performances since making his Western Province and Stormers debut in 2011, despite being included in the Springbok squad in 2013 and 2016.
Ntubeni never got game time for the 2013 Boks and again saw no action in the series against Ireland three years later. Instead, he fronted an England Saxons side in a South Africa “A” jersey.
Since that time, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi and Akker Van Der Merwe have risen to prominence, while Rassie Erasmus called Schalk Brits out of retirement, all contributing to push Ntubeni further away from the Bok vicinity.
It’s telling to note that Mbonambi, who only joined the Stormers three years ago, has close to as many Super Rugby caps (49) for the franchise as Ntubeni (52), an eight-year veteran of the competition. It was Ntubeni’s injury woes that prompted the Stormers to acquire Mbonambi from the Bulls, and the latter hasn’t looked back.
In August, news broke that Western Province were looking to offload 19 players to help alleviate the union’s significant financial difficulties. Some of these players were set to be let go or loaned out immediately while it appeared that others were to be retained for the Currie Cup and released thereafter, a category that listed Ntubeni.
It must be a bitter pill to swallow for someone who’s been so loyal to the blue and white hoops, despite his challenges to stay fit, but this may well be the moment for Ntubeni to revitalise his career. At 27, he must be close to his prime as a hooker. If he can stay injury-free, then the odds are good that he will finally convert his potential into consistently impressive performances at rugby’s top level.
In Pretoria, Adriaan Strauss’ retirement has left a void in the front row. Neither Jaco Visagie nor Edgar Marutlulle has taken the opportunity by the scruff of the neck. There are some promising young hookers on the Bulls books in the form of Johan Grobbelaar and Jan-Henning Campher, but there is no clear starter at the position.
That would change if the Bulls made the mutually-beneficial decision to sign Ntubeni now. While he faces stiff competition in Cape Town (Mbonambi and Ramone Samuels), a fit and firing Ntubeni would quickly claim the starting spot at the Bulls where he would be feeding a lineout that features three Springbok locks in Lood De Jager, RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins, a trio of options that would perhaps help pave the road to Test rugby.
Van Der Merwe successfully stepped out of Malcolm Marx’s shadow by signing with the Sharks. Last week he was named Man of the Match in the Currie Cup final and is widely seen as the player most unlucky to have missed out on the trip to Europe with the Boks.
Scarra has won the Currie Cup twice and is poised to build on those successes. But time on the field is what he needs most, and the Bulls are in a position to meet that need.
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