Cape Town – If senior Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer watched
the Baby Boks’ tourney-opening defeat to their Irish counterparts in
Stellenbosch, he would probably have noted how difficult Stormers star Steven
Kitshoff found it to get out of the blocks.
GALLERY: Springbok training session
The loosehead prop is supposed to be a kingpin for South
Africa in the IRB Junior World Championships, given his terrific strides and near
constant use in his maiden Super Rugby season: instead he looked more lethargic
than many team-mates as they crashed to a 23-19 defeat and was substituted at
Kitshoff’s lack of killer touch should hardly be deemed as
surprising: he is at a suitably advanced stage of his most intense, gruelling
and fast-paced season yet and even in stepping back “down” to under-20 combat
clearly struggled to get a good head of steam at the Danie Craven Stadium ... I
would suggest through no fault or lack of mental willingness of his own.
On Saturday another rookie at Super Rugby level, his
Stormers tight-five colleague Eben Etzebeth, possibly changes his levels of
play too ... only in the latter’s case, he will be expected to actually crank
his game up a critical notch if chosen for the Bok starting XV in the first
Test against England at Mr Price Kings Park.
Especially with more senior Stormers lock ally Andries
Bekker clearly operating at below full efficiency for wear-and-tear reasons
until he finally broke down anyway last week, Etzebeth has carried an
unexpectedly heavy, mounting personal load – certainly the kind of burden he
could hardly have dreamed of last season when he took part is such lesser tasks
as the Varsity Cup.
The outstanding young talent has “gutsed” it out splendidly
week after week, and it is no secret that he has been carrying a shoulder
niggle of his own, which is hardly ideal in your No 4 customer who is expected
to be particularly physical at close quarters, plus provide a meaty shove at
scrum time a la Bakkies Botha.
There have just been telltale signs lately, I’d suggest,
that Etzebeth is succumbing to some degree of fatigue, and he came off the park
well before the finish of the uncompromising Super Rugby triumph over the Bulls
at Loftus on Saturday – fortunately for the visitors, the similarly youthful
Quinn Roux then put himself about with great aplomb off the bench.
Would it just be asking too much, however willing and hungry
in mind and spirit, to expect the 20-year-old Etzebeth to go hell-for-leather
this Saturday on a full international debut, against the backdrop of his high
We shouldn’t doubt his ability or determination to put such
fears quickly to rest, but at the same time I am inclined to also advise
Stormers-fancying Bok enthusiasts, perhaps peeved already at the lack of Cape
representation in the broad Bok squad, to cut Meyer some slack if he deems it
more sensible to start this weekend with the all-Bulls lock combination of Flip
van der Merwe in the No 4 jersey alongside expected main lineout factor and
debutant Juandre Kruger.
If Etzebeth is to do fullest justice to a debut for South
Africa, rather than potentially run the risk of beginning his Test career on
the back foot, there may be some wisdom to letting him build up some steam from
the substitutes’ ranks in Durban and then be unleashed for a productive 20 to
30 minutes he may be more capable of at this particular point .
Etzebeth is a magnificent prospect, make no mistake. Is it
in his and South Africa’s best interests to break him in just a little gently?
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