Cape Town – A convincing enough 28 minutes: that’s what Eben
Etzebeth was able to register in his comeback rugby match after more than eight
months on the sidelines.
But whether that makes him ready for involvement in the
match-day squad for South Africa – either as a starter or substitute -- in
their Castle Rugby Championship opener against Argentina next Saturday must
remain shrouded in substantial doubt.
The young Springbok lock, recovering from ankle surgery and
other mishaps, got on the park in the 55th minute of Western
Province’s sometimes tetchy Absa Currie Cup match against the EP Kings in Port
Elizabeth on Friday night, after it had already been known for a day or two
earlier that the original plan for him to play from the beginning had been
Instead he replaced Jean Kleyn before the hour mark, and not
long after Province, the 2013 runners-up, had finally asserted themselves after
an iffy first half to open up a clear-cut 27-11 lead.
By the time his shift was complete (a full three minutes
after the siren, as Cheslin Kolbe snuck over for a bonus-point try), the
visitors had registered a 35-16 victory.
In typical fashion, the combative 22-year-old required less
than a minute to make his first significant, unceremonious tackle, and there
were others as he got a decent new feel for activity between the white lines
after limping off in the November Test match against France in Paris.
He was also a pretty smart arrival at a few breakdowns, but
as the game got progressively looser in the closing stages there were also
hints on an apparently humid night that he is still – quite understandably – a
fair way off full-game sharpness and stamina.
Certainly his cameo appearance seemed a gladdening step in
the right direction, but less than half an hour of a Currie Cup fixture is
still a lot different to a more demanding, broader involvement in an
international clash at high altitude.
The chance exists, maybe, that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, who
has been extremely partial to Etzebeth since blooding him in his maiden series
against England in mid-2012 and aware of his fine “engine”, saw enough in his
few days of squad training earlier this week to believe he is potentially ready
for fast-tracking against the Pumas -- and then quietly whispered to WP that he
would appreciate the player not being too stretched against their coastal
rivals, for the sake of bigger-picture preservation.
But a likelier scenario, you would think, is that the giant
second-rower is simply being phased back in again with due caution, bearing in
mind the desire to have him firing on fullest cylinders by the time the All
Blacks and Wallabies have to be tackled.
Speculation that the starting Bok lock pairing next Saturday
will be veteran Bakkies Botha at No 4 with Lood de Jager, another exciting
rookie, asked to operate slightly out of position at five still seems pretty
sensible, with Etzebeth then possibly in the mix for a spot among the
Even that can be a risky tactic for an undercooked player,
given the danger that one of the starting locks gets injured uncomfortably
early on, and the man on the bench ends up being summoned for virtually a full
Some comfort if Etzebeth does crack the match-day squad,
however, would be that expected first-choice blindside flank Willem Alberts
offers known, versatile possibilities in the second row if the need suddenly
arises against Argentina.
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