Etzebeth: Slow blooding best?

2012-06-05 14:06
Eben Etzebeth (Gallo)
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 halftime.

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 game-time mentioned?

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?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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