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Springbok hooker Mbonambi slams ‘unprofessional’ England in aftermath of RWC ‘racial slur’ row

Springbok hooker Mbonambi slams ‘unprofessional’ England in aftermath of RWC ‘racial slur’ row
Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi suggested that the Tom Curry incident was a case of ‘lost in translation’, although he did not confirm what he said to the England flank.

Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi broke his silence over the racial slur accusations levelled at him during Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023, accusing England of being “unprofessional”. 

In the aftermath of South Africa’s 16-15 RWC 2023 semifinal win over England, it emerged that flank Tom Curry reported to referee Ben O’Keeffe that Mbonambi had allegedly called him a “white c**t”. 

The Rugby Football Union (RFU), the sport’s governing body in England, lodged a complaint with World Rugby to have the matter dealt with “urgently”. 

World Rugby launched an investigation and, 48 hours before the final of RWC 2023 between South Africa and New Zealand, confirmed that there was “insufficient evidence” to pursue a case of the alleged use of “discriminatory language”. 

The Springboks went on to win RWC 2023 by beating the All Blacks 12-11 in the final at Stade de France on 28 October. 

Speaking to BBC Sport Africa, Mbonambi did not confirm what he had said to Curry, but he implied it was lost in translation. 

“I think it is a very sad thing when you live in a First World country [England], you think the rest of the world speaks English,” Mbonambi told BBC Sport Africa on Tuesday. 

“It was unprofessional on their part. They could have gone on a website and looked for an English dictionary and looked for the word in Afrikaans. 

“People understood [in South Africa], but obviously their side misunderstood. I’m glad it was well taken care of [by World Rugby] and that is all in the past now. But I have never racially swore at him.” 

It has been widely speculated that Mbonambi might have uttered the phrase “wit kant”, which is Afrikaans for “white side”.  

RFU unhappy 

Despite World Rugby’s decision to drop the matter, the RFU released a scathing statement suggesting that it wasn’t the first time Mbonambi had directed a racial slur at Curry. It alleged he made a similar comment during the November 2022 clash between the teams at Twickenham. 

This undermined their case at the World Cup, because they wanted the matter dealt with “urgently”, yet introduced an allegation that supposedly happened 11 months before. They couldn’t have it both ways. 

Regardless, the RFU backed Curry’s version despite World Rugby being unable to find any evidence after studying all the available video and audio files. It dropped the matter but left a side door open, suggesting it might be revisited if new evidence came to light. 

“The RFU fully supports Tom Curry in raising the racially abusive behaviour he experienced whilst playing for England against South Africa,” the RFU said.  

“During the match between England and South Africa on Saturday, 21st October 2023, Tom Curry reported to the referee that he has been racially abused by Mbongeni Mbonambi.  

“The subsequent World Rugby investigation were [sic] informed by Tom Curry that he had also been the victim of the same abuse, from the same player, in the Autumn Test 2022. 

“World Rugby have today announced their decision not to bring charges in respect of either incident.  

“The RFU are deeply disappointed by the decision taken by World Rugby. The decision not to put the evidence before an Independent Disciplinary Panel has denied the disciplinary process the opportunity to hear Tom Curry’s voice and to independently assess his account of these serious events, together with the other available evidence.” 

It was a clever bit of legal phrasing, because the RFU’s statement did not confirm whether Curry ever answered questions as part of World Rugby’s investigation, but only that he would not have the chance to answer questions at a disciplinary hearing.  

For clarity, Mbonambi was presented with questions by the World Rugby investigating team and he answered them. The same courtesy was presumably extended to Curry.  

The South African Rugby Union confirmed on 26 October that Mbonambi had denied the accusations. 

“Bongi Mbonambi is an experienced, respected and decorated Test player and, needless to say, denied the allegations from the outset. SA Rugby has absolute faith in the honesty and integrity of Bongi.” 

Both Curry and Mbonambi were victims of ugly social media abuse in the aftermath of the allegations. 

Kolisi’s empathy and leadership

Bok skipper Siya Kolisi, displaying his status as the game’s most important voice, underlined his empathy and leadership when he revealed he had reached out to Curry. 

“I have spoken to him, I sent him a message. He is someone I respect,” Kolisi told the media on 26 October. 

“We can take it [criticism] as players. When it comes to us directly, it’s fine. But when it comes to your family, it’s totally different and that’s exactly what he said to me. 

“It’s the one part of the game we really don’t enjoy. I hope, obviously, it stops and he was able to prepare as much as he could for the game that he’s playing tomorrow.  

“I have let him know we are supporting him, we are thinking of him.”  

England head coach Steve Borthwick was less empathetic in the aftermath of the situation, claiming that Curry was a “victim”, even though it was Mbonambi’s name that had been sullied by unfounded allegations. 

“We have got a victim of a situation who has not been able to have his voice heard and they [World Rugby] have denied the victim of the situation, Tom Curry, to have his voice heard,” Borthwick said on 26 October. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    It will be an interesting day when Tom Curry plays his first match on South African soil at say Loftus or Bloemfontein stadiums in front of 60000 Mbonambi fans. He may just become fairly fluent in Afrikaans in 80 minutes. His only way to counteract that is to apologise publicly for the ‘lost in translation’ misunderstanding, and shake Mbonambi’s hand. I still think that he will get a few off-side’ calls though. Best he keeps a stiff upper lip and takes a good dose of humour pills.

  • David A says:

    What a bunch of clowns…

  • Clifford Salwyn Markgraff says:

    The black people can’t speak Afrikaans, they want to phase it out here in S.A. but go and speak it in english speaking countries?

    • Bruce Gatland says:

      Bongi went to school in Bethlehem.
      He is fluent in Afrikaans.
      There are at least 5 million “black” people who speak Afrikaans every day.

    • jcdville stormers says:

      You are totally misguided,even in Namibia black people speak Afrikaans

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Which specific black people are you referring to? In large swathes of rural South Africa, Afrikaans would be the second language to many black people (possibly third), whilst English would be a luxury for most. Indeed, last week I ambled into a butchery in a suburb in Joburg where none of the staff – black or white – spoke English. I was, however, delighted when I dredged the world maalvleis out of the recesses of my schoolboy Afrikaans. Still don’t know what steak is, but it seems pretty universal.

      Also, both our cricket and rugby sides have used Afrikaans as a means of communication to stop the opposition understanding what they’re saying for years. Don’t know about other sporting codes, to be honest.

    • hilton smith says:

      How did this comment slip through moderation.

    • Mark Mann says:

      There are lots of areas where black people speak Afrikaans. Northern KZN, Northern Cape, Limpopo, Northwest Province, etc. Many black people even speak several languages including English and Afrikaans. One colleague I had spoke 7 languages.

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        I visit the eastern Free State regularly, and as soon as we leave Gauteng, I have to focus on Afrikaans. I’m proud to say that after years of not speaking it at all, living in Joburg and having largely English-speaking friends and family, I’m starting to get better at it and feeling more comfortable speaking Afrikaans, which is a wonderful, expressive language when you give it a chance!

    • Libby De Villiers says:

      You must speak to Charleze Theron. She also thinks nobody speaks Afrikaan in South Africa any more.
      Being misinformed is really limiting.

    • jason du toit says:

      in south africa, afrikaans is the first language of double the number of non-whites than it is of whites. there are double the number of non-whites in south africa who speak afrikaans as a first language than there are white first language speakers. there are 2.7M afrikaans first language white south africans, 4.8M coloured south africans and 0.6M black south africans.

      additionally, it is widely understood as a second or thirs language across the conoutry.

      and as others have pointed out, it is frequently used in sports matches against other countries to be able to communicate with team members without the other team understanding what is being said (this is a common practice in international sports when a country speaks languages other than english).

    • Sven Leisegang says:

      Via Stats SA:
      2.10 Home language by population group (percentages)*
      These are the top 3:

      IsiZulu – 22.9%
      IsiXhosa – 17.9%
      Afrikaans – 14.4%

      English only comes in at #5…

  • Two Wrongs Aint No Right says:

    Afrikaans to the rescue again. But at home Afrikaans has to fight for survival. Afrikaans schools are targeted by centralism.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Not by ordinary South Africans, who, for the most part are wonderfully phlegmatic people, able to live and let live. Our sleazy political elite on the other hand…

  • Mark Mann says:

    Probably Mbonambi wasn’t even speaking to (or about) Curry. As someone commented already, Curry is likely going to get a crash course in Afrikaans from the crowd, next time he plays in SA. I can’t wait to see those posters – should be hilarious.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Allow me to don my tinfoil hat for a moment and speculate that England knew we only had Bongi as a specialist hooker and Curry was trying to get him penalised or carded using a sly, underhanded tactic. And before anyone says I’m casting aspersions, let the RFU statement take the first stone. Basically in their gin-addled minds, it’s an open and shut case, despite no actual evidence in support, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    It was also notable that Bongi was targeted by the Kiwis in the final – successfully, I may add – with quite a few of my mates who follow rugby league in the UK (yes, I know, but other than that, they’re fine fellows) saying that the drop on his leg is treated far more seriously in that code than the alleged head hits of either Cane or Kolisi. That we managed to win the World Cup with a 37 year old retreaded flank who last played hooker over a decade ago speaks wonders for the players in Green and Gold!

    PS, I haven’t seen anybody in the Bok camp seriously suggest that either incident was premeditated or part of a plan to denude the Boks of their set piece excellence, but if the Poms can go on the wind-up, so can we.

    • Michael Jones says:

      I don’t think there is a case for having a dedicated hoover, all he’s doing these days is linking the two props. He doesn’t actually hook like he used to.

      • JM McGill says:

        Beyond needing to be a powerful scrummager, the hooker is also solely responsible for feeding the lineout. A specialist job perhaps only behind the goal kicker in importance and skill.

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        Spoken like a true backrower, Mr Jones! He still has to be a good scrummager – and Bongi between two props is far better than Deon, who isn’t used to that position anymore. He also has to feed the lineouts and we lost four of those against the Kiwis, thereby losing possession, field position and momentum. It’s a highly specialised position, along with prop, scrumhalf and goalkicker.

  • Stuart Diesel says:

    I think a key point is being missed, and that is whether the incident was fully and correctly investigated? Everyone has a right to that surely?

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      I’m assuming it was, since WR said they couldn’t find any evidence have gone through all the video and audio available? And having taken statements from those involved?

      • Stuart Diesel says:

        It is clear that the England grievance is around the lack of due process being followed. If they are correct about this this that is not a good thing for what is potentially a serious allegation. I have no issue with accepting the correct outcome, whatever that may be, providing both parties are satisfied, and it is clear, that it was fully and correctly investigated.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Tom who?
    Steve who?

    very long after Curry and Borthwick are forgotten, people will remember Bongi and Rassie.

  • André du Plessis says:

    England played a very good game of rugby and rugby supporters will have respected them for that. Just a pity that that is spoilt by winging afterwards. Cry baby, just take the loss on the chin!

  • Enver Klein says:

    My favourite remains our coastal fish, Coelacanth, now eternally linked to Tom Curry for what he is, as pronounced, “Silly (Seely) Kant”.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    What puzzles me about this whole brouhaha is that Tom Curry is a decent sort, with no record of shithousery or malicious intent. Remember he was just about the only English player who wore his silver medal with pride in 2019. At the end of the game he offered to shake Bongi’s hand, although Bongi rejected it. He has said nothing about it since then. I think he genuinely misunderstood what Bongi had said, and would have been happy to put it all behind him. It was Borthwick and the RFU who wouldn’t let it go and doubled down. But why? They had no evidence. The match was gone. What did they hope to gain? It was obviously a language crossed wire. To everyone with half a brain cell, it would be inconceivable that a Bok, and a black Bok at that would use such a racial slur, given the team’s whole raison d’etre around diversity and inclusion. They have made themselves look like fools, spiteful fools.

    • Stuart Diesel says:

      Your post highlights exactly what my issue is with this. You state that there was no evidence but then go on to say that anyone with an ounce of intelligence would know that is was a misunderstanding and England management are just whinging bad losers…well how do you (or anyone else for that matter) know that??

      Curry clearly feels he wasn’t correctly heard or treated, that is not a good thing, no matter whether he is right, wrong, whinging, a victim or it is simply a misunderstanding. Until such a time as we are given clear evidence that the process was correctly followed and all parties were shown full respect then this will drag on which is not a good thing for the game or the individuals.

      I remember as an English speaking young kid learning for the first time how to say “choose my side” in Afrikaans and driving great pleasure from saying it out loud to the embarrassment of my parents. I insisted it was simply a misunderstanding of the language, of course my parents knew better and of course they were right. Not saying this is the case here, but it COULD be?

      • Bonzo Gibbon says:

        You’re misquoting me. I said anyone with half a brain cell would know that it is incredibly unlikely that a Bok would use a racial slur. I say there is no evidence, simply because no one has produced any, not World Rugby, not the RFU, not Joe Bloggs on the internet. The only possible evidence is audio/video and there is none. Presumably Curry was “heard” because he was interviewed as part of the WR investigation. However, there is no evidence to support his accusation. The use of the word “kant” seems the most obvious explanation, and I think that Borthwick and the RFU’s persistence with this allegation does show they are bad losers.

  • Andrew Baigrie says:

    Get a Life RFU, your ‘holier than thou’ approach and Curry’s is pathetic, racism is serious no question, with 46 years of legal racism we know that seriously in South Africa, more than England does, but in the heat of international rugby what players say to each other on the field or off is their business, the game is long, rough, exhausting, frustrating with subjective laws, letting off steam at each other in the heat of battle, to be polite, is part of it. If anyone gets involved, let it be the captains who share change rooms, buses and hotels with their teams, lots of time to sort things out.

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