Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck faces a tough balancing act, particularly over the next few weeks, in his use of Springbok second-row gem Eben Etzebeth.
Etzebeth was simply colossal in their Super Rugby season-opening triumph over old enemies the Bulls; for what it’s worth, he would have been this writer’s choice for player-of-the-match above flyhalf Robert du Preez, even if the young pivot ticked plenty of boxes in what is widely considered a problematic slot for the franchise this year.
The 24-year-old produced about as complete a performance as you could wish for from a No 4 lock, bristling with physical intent and unceasing appetite for graft in the tight-loose, causing havoc on the Bulls’ lineout throw-in, aiding the Stormers’ scrummaging and mauling mastery with his enviable power, and adding a try with a charge for the line that combined brute strength with athleticism and a clever eye for the correct hole to probe.
Perhaps not widely enough appreciated, also, is that Etzebeth is increasingly learning, as he matures, to channel his inbuilt aggression properly: players of his mould will always flirt with the boundaries of the laws, but he is mostly doing a sound job these days in escaping yellow-card censure and the like.
There is rightful excitement at Newlands about how his partnership with Pieter-Steph du Toit, a year his junior and a recent signing from the Sharks, will develop during the campaign -- and perhaps the best message you can give Stormers enthusiasts is to enjoy it while they can.
Etzebeth, remember, is in his fifth season with the Stormers and has a contract that runs out at the end of this year.
Probably getting fairly close to the peak of his powers in a punishing rugby calendar where such events can occur earlier than they did a few years ago, the juggernaut is bound to become an increasingly irresistible target by cash-flush European or British clubs; Western Province would do incredibly well, realistically, to squeeze much further service out of the player.
It is tough for SA-based bosses to negotiate ongoing deals over finest players in the face of the overwhelming currency exchange-rate impediment – for an unpleasant reminder in this neck of the woods, emerging loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, another 24-year-old, has already been sacrificed to Bordeaux.
There is always the hopeful chance that Etzebeth doesn’t fancy quite yet being based on the frigid, wet and heavy winter pitches of Europe, but the likelihood presumably flickers dangerously nevertheless that 2016 is the big enforcer’s Super Rugby swansong.
If you were Fleck and his lieutenants, you would logically wish to extract every drop of match-day energy from him that you can over the next few months – Etzebeth, already a 44-cap “veteran” of the Bok cause, is almost undoubtedly their most influential forward asset.
But at the same time, due regard will have to be taken for the threat of over-playing him.
Etzebeth went the distance on Saturday, as the Stormers opted instead to call off Du Toit instead a little short of the final whistle, allowing for a debut for the rangy young JD Schickerling, who clearly holds great promise as a “five” lock.
More traditionally, it is the No 4 who comes off earlier in games, given the more physical, confrontational requirements of his portfolio – think Bulls in the heyday of the legendary Bakkies Botha-Victor Matfield combination, when the former would often depart around the hour mark and the lineout maestro go the full 80 minutes.
Which lock you withdraw, of course, can depend on the type of reserve arsenal you have in the position, and that is where the Stormers have a bit of a quandary at present.
Jean Kleyn was the appealing, intended “like for like” back-up for Etzebeth in 2016, but that particular bruiser suffered a wrist injury in the pre-season phase and may not be seen again until the tournament resumes after the June Test window – when the Stormers wrap up ordinary season against the Rebels (away), Force (away) and Kings at home.
Another strong alternative option would have been Rynhardt Elstadt, the abrasive utility forward who had an impressive near-full season in the second row once alongside Andries Bekker, but he is also laid low until at least the end of March with a groin complaint.
What it means, unless the Stormers coaches have any left-field “Plan B” options in mind for the No 4 shirt, is that Etzebeth’s good health is absolutely critical for at least the looming fixtures against the Cheetahs (in Bloemfontein this Saturday) and then a stiff further trio of challenges from the Sharks (home), Brumbies (home) and Jaguares (away) ahead of a bye.
But the down side of expecting him to pitch in with customary, maximum vigour in this period is that the necessary “miles” to his engine will be in danger of making him a candidate for some sort of breakdown as well – remember that Etzebeth has had a negligible off-season as he went off to a Japanese club stint after the World Cup.
There should be better scope for the player to benefit from “rotation” deeper into the programme, hopefully with one or both Elstadt and Kleyn back as sound selection options in his berth.
Right now, it seems a risky case of Etzebeth-or-bust at No 4.
Fleck will be praying there’s no “bust” involved.
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