Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx may have always been tipped for greatness
From the moment he touched a rugby ball, to the moment he had New Zealanders and South Africans alike in awe of his performance at Newlands, those who have come into contact with him during his short career thus far have always agreed on one thing – the kid is something special.
Those who have known him longer than his senior rugby career will never be surprised by the performance he put in at Newlands a few weeks back – that same one that had the harshest of critics in the New Zealand Herald giving him – a foreign player – the honour of being rated 10/10.
To impress the Kiwis is one thing, but Marx has long been tipped as the next Bismarck du Plessis by rugby pundits, and at Newlands he found his niche, so to speak, to be the hybrid fetcher, the physical confronter and the lineout master all in one match.
It was a performance for the ages, underlined even more so by the fact that a few weeks earlier Marx and his team-mates had been on the end of a 57-0 drubbing, one where the lineout didn’t work and the physicality disappeared in the Albany night. To return with such a performance underlined class and composure, and it had everyone in the rugby world talking.
But Marx is not a talkative figure, media shy and simply content to get on with the job, he isn’t the type who will blow his own trumpet. So it made sense to delve a bit deeper, talk to the people who know him the best, to find if the beast on the field has a tamer side off it.
Perhaps the starkest admission comes from Malcolm’s long-time girlfriend Kirsten Grant, a final-year medical student who summed him up perfectly by their post-match conversation just after he had set the rugby world alight.
While the discussions were still going on as to the impact, and amazing prowess he displayed at Newlands, in the quieter, more intimate chat with the ones he loved, Marx was happy the Springboks were in the contest, but said little else.
“I chatted to him afterwards, and he was humble. He would never say I had a good game,” Kirsten recalls, “He told me “I tried my best”. I know he realised he played well, but he would never admit that. He’s not that type of a person.”
That thread of being a grounded, mature individual long beyond his 23 years follows through when speaking to those around him, and how he developed from being a big kid in a small schoolyard, to the Springbok hope for the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
STUMBLING BUT NOT FALLING
Born in Germiston 11 months prior to the magnificent Rugby World Cup victory a few dozen kilometres away at Ellis Park, Marx didn’t have an easy upbringing. His mom Bernadine raised him and his brother Jean alone, after his father left when he was five.
“As a single mom, it was a tough life, it hasn’t been easy. He has learned from that experience, that is why he is so grounded. He’s had a tough upbringing, financially it was hard. But they never complained, I never had any lip,” Bernadine explains.
“They’ve always been so respectful and supportive, in whatever happened. For a boy being brought up by a mom nowadays, there is a lot of criticism about that too. But they’ve turned out to be good boys.”
Jean adds that while growing up in a single-parent home was difficult, it was never something that defined him or his brother.
“I think it was tough, but that made us be more independent. It built a bond between us that we knew, no matter what, we always stuck together. That was the key thing for us, sticking together and knowing whatever we go through, it will be okay.
“My mom, she’s phenomenally strong, I take my hat off for her.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Malcolm was always a big kid, Bernadine relays, and stood a foot taller than any of the other children he played sport with.
Proof of this was when he was five. He was asked to join a mini-soccer team in Cape Town, as the coach thought he was older, and ended up qualifying for the playoffs with the side, as goalkeeper, playing with children who were eight years old.
Always a competitor, Malcolm’s size counted against him, as he was asked not to play under-six soccer because the other parents complained – especially as the power of his kicks left a few opposition goalkeepers with bloody noses at the time.
But as a competitor, that streak never left him as he excelled at school in soccer, rugby, cricket and lifesaving, moving onto waterpolo in high school as well. But rugby was always first – and the talent was spotted early when he was selected for King Edward VII (KES) first team in Grade nine – way younger than many of his peers in the side at the time.
“It was funny because he was such a big kid that the KES Grade nines – they have this respect thing at the school where you greet the seniors as Sir, and they greeted him thinking that he was older, but meantime he was the same age as them,” Bernadine adds.
“I think in Grade 10 I realised he has potential and a lot of the other parents used to tell me they came to watch rugby to watch him play. I think I knew he had potential but I never really thought he would make a career out of it.”
Marx has played lock and flank, making the Grant Khomo under-16 elite squad as flank before interest from former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who suggested he move to hooker, struck a chord. While Meyer received a lot of stick for a similar suggestion to British and Irish Lions flanker CJ Stander, in Marx’s case it worked like a bomb, and set him on the path to international rugby.
Marx had all the attributes of a healthy, sometimes mischievous child, learning to drive on a sand road when the family stayed on a plot when he was nine years old.
“As soon as we got onto the sand road, he wanted to drive, drive on the sand road, could hardly look over the steering wheel but he got the hang of it quite quickly,” Bernadene adds.
“One day I was at home and I went out and my car was gone. There was Malcolm on the sand road, riding around all the other houses, taking the car for a spin. These little boys were all standing around looking at him taking the car for a spin. But he has always been a confident boy.”
That confidence sometimes got him into trouble, as his brother Jean recalls one day with a box of naartjies that caused havoc at home
“I don’t know how old we were, but we used to stay with my Gran, and my mom bought a box of naartjies and we came home early from school, and my mom was at work,” Jean recalls.
“We were bored so we started throwing the naartjies at each other and the whole house was full of naartjies – the skin against the walls, the juices on the floors. When my mom came home she had a hernia.”
At the age of 15 he met Kirsten, a year older than him and the love blossomed, so much so that the medical student has been his rock for the past seven years and still going strong.
“I met Malcolm when he was 15, I was 16, so I’m a year older,” Kirsten recalls, “So he was always teased at school that he was dating a cougar. We’ve been dating for seven years, we met through my brother, who played rugby with Malcolm.
“Long story short, Malcolm and I met through rugby and the rest is history. We dated for a while in school. He has been there for me through six years of medical school.
“Everyone knows Malcolm to be this talented rugby player, he’s always been this big guy. He’s a really big guy. He always used to get asked ‘what do you eat?’ (to get that big). They all know him as this absolute rugby talent but they don’t know what type of a guy he actually is. He is the most generous and kind person you would ever meet. He is definitely the type of guy that will give the shirt off his back to everyone – he is extremely loyal and loves his friends.”
Kirsten and Malcolm have what she calls “a foster child” – a big cuddly Bulldog called Benjamin, which has the ability to turn the tough Springbok into a big softy, as his love for animals comes out.
NO CRITICS, NO SUCCESS
While Malcolm has had some criticism for his lineout throwing in the past, both Kirsten and his family point out that he trains extra to try and get it right – roping in whoever is nearby in the process. Malcolm travels everywhere with the “lollipop” – the pole that hookers aim for when practicing their lineout throws.
“He has made me hold the lollipop at home where I’ve had to sustain the brutal force of the Springbok hooker, full blast at this lollipop,” Kirsten laughs.
“My wrists have been so sore, because he refuses not to train. He throws some on his calls, and some on my calls, and it took me a while to realise what that meant. He will literally throw several throws at different distances to help him out again, he’d ask me nicely.
“A friend of ours tells this story that some of the time Malcolm’s throws would be skew, and I wouldn’t want to make him feel bad, so I’d move the pole to correct the throw so that he wouldn’t feel bad. That’s a bit embarrassing…
“He takes it very personally because he is a perfectionist in his game. He went home and went back to the drawing board and corrected the lineout mistakes he made.
“He is a very humble guy, he’s never the guy to boast about what he did. He takes criticism well and uses it to benefit himself and the team.”
Malcolm’s best friend is also a team-mate – flanker Cyle Brink – who has shared his journey from KES to Super Rugby and knows him all too well. When pressed for stories about Marx, Brink laughs and says there are a few that he can’t tell, but then smiles as he remembers one of the things Marx is well-known among his friends for – his vivid imagination.
“Often we are driving and he would say – ‘hey bru, imagine you hit that tree and an anaconda fell on your car – what would you do?’ He will come up with the most random nonsense at any given time, and we don’t know where he gets it from,” Brink laughs.
Kirsten adds that if there is a bugbear in Malcolm’s life it is punctuality.
“He’s a very independent person, he’s organised and is fanatical about time. I always have to always be on time, and sometimes he will actually lie to me and say we have to be somewhere at 6.30 when we actually have to be there at 7, so that I’m ready in time. He hates being late, especially if it has anything to do with rugby,” she laughs.
Brink and Marx share another passion – a boat that takes up most of their free-time, as they head to the dam for wake-boarding or tubing, something they both love doing to shake off the stresses of rugby.
“He loves that boat, sometimes a little too much,” Kirsten laughs.
The media-shy hooker has the world before him now, and after Newlands will have expectations to grow as a Springbok to deal with, but talking to those around him, it is clear Marx has the maturity and calmness that is needed to deal with the external pressures, and knows what it takes to succeed.
“He doesn’t like the limelight on him. He is camera shy and doesn’t like to be in the media often,” Bernadine remembers.
“But I think he is getting used to it. He has gotten a lot better. He is just one of those caring people who doesn’t like things to be about him.”
If the performances continue as they did at Newlands, Marx is set to get a lot more limelight, and inspire a lot more people in the process.