Currie Cup

Eben makes strides, but ...

2014-08-09 08:15
Eben Etzebeth (Gallo Images)

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 shelved.

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 substitutes.

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 game anyway.

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.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    wp  |  ep kings  |  currie cup  |  eben etzebeth  |  cape town  |  rugby

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