Cape Town - The latest hammer blow to the Springboks’ home series aspirations against England in June trains the spotlight spiritedly back toward Eben Etzebeth’s painstaking rehabilitation programme.
This follows grim confirmation on Monday that the consummately in-form Bulls lock Lood de Jager, holder of 36 Test caps, is a write-off for several months due to a chest injury.
A real danger now exists that the Boks will start out their campaign-proper under Rassie Erasmus’s charge - after an experimental-themed Test against Wales in Washington - minus their likeliest second-row combination if at full strength.
The names of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman are understandably now being touted as front-runners, at least from the domestic landscape, to fill the two glaring voids, and South Africa should still be more than “OK” against England with those resources.
But what price Etzebeth yet making the cut in time?
There is increased urgency, after the De Jager setback, for him to be scurried back into the frame if at all possible … and maybe it is not yet too forlorn a hope that he plays a significant part in the series against Eddie Jones’s charges.
The word from Newlands on Tuesday remained that Etzebeth is “training with the (Stormers) team” and supposedly also still on track for a return to action by the May 26 home derby against the Lions, immediately preceding the June recess in the competition for Test activity.
South Africa play Wales a week later - possibly a further opportunity for the big second-rower to get some action, even if the time-zone considerations won’t be ideal for him? - before hostilities begin against England.
Assuming Etzebeth comes through at least some periods of activity against the Lions, and maybe also the Welsh, then he would at least be an attractive possibility for deployment in the first Test in Johannesburg.
If that seems overly optimistic, bear in mind that he is a fine athlete and possesses no lack of instinctive competitive juices.
In many ways he has proved previously that, following lengthy absences, he is capable - a bit like former Stormers/WP and Bok team-mate Schalk Burger - of getting his mojo back quickly.
While some players look quite obviously tentative in their first few games back off the long-term crocked list, Burger was always one who seemed to banish all thoughts of surgery and rehab with remarkable stealth, and Etzebeth similarly has tended to take little time to get his engine up through the gears, as it were.
Etzebeth is also the current, acting captain of the national side, and there were few complaints about his leadership specifically, even as the Boks continued to generally under-achieve in the fading embers of Allister Coetzee’s tenure as coach.
Ironically the Stormers v Lions date may also be the earliest in which the frontline Test skipper under the “Toetie” regime, Warren Whiteley, makes his much-needed comeback from a nagging knee problem to the gradually wilting cause of the conference-leading Lions.
Erasmus is pretty sure to be anxious for both to come into his plans as quickly as possible, especially with their leadership qualities in tow.
But with both De Jager and that humungous-shouldered young hooker gem Malcolm Marx laid low for the keenly-anticipated first home series against England since 2012, the Bok tight five has taken some especially forceful strikes to the hull in the lead-up.
Marx would have been one of the “hard men” of the Springbok boiler room against those foes, which is why Etzebeth - who made his SA debut against the English 67 Tests ago - could be daringly fast-tracked as apt compensation if there is any chance of medical approval/reassurance for it.
He can probably be deemed 95 percent of the way to the Full Monty for active service, given that the delay in his return has been primarily due to the need to build up renewed strength in the bicep to the left arm affected by his shoulder correctional process in the off-season.
Sport24 colleague Lloyd Burnard reported in mid-April that the 26-year-old was already “running at full tilt and involved in most drills” at Stormers training.
It is tempting to submit, admittedly in a spectacular sidestepping of doctor or physio’s wisdom, that one fully-bulging bicep from Etzebeth is enough to be of really major help already, thanks …
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