Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If Eben Etzebeth walks a disciplinary tightrope, he walks it astonishingly well.
The hulking Springbok lock, one of pitifully few genuinely world-class players in the current Springbok set-up, may well not be appreciated enough on these shores, I fancy, for the abundance of attributes he brings to both Super Rugby and Test matches.
He is about as complete a second-row forward as you will find, and there is a solid case for arguing that he is better than - and at very least equal to - present global rivals like New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and England’s emerging Maro Itoje.
Not only does Etzebeth produce all the “grunt” and physicality of a classic No 4 lock, but his athletic side - and associated extra value in team work-rate and visibility terms - makes him a seriously indispensable package to any team he represents.
Just another side to Etzebeth that may go under-lauded is how he consistently fronts up even in deep adversity … like when the Stormers side he led against the Crusaders last Saturday were seriously under the cosh in scoreboard terms and in danger after the first half (3-36) of collapsing to a particularly gory reverse.
But with Etzebeth constantly to the fore for desperate commitment and energy, the tourists did - admittedly after the proverbial fact - recapture a semblance of pride in a second half which they nominally shared in points distribution terms after the earlier shellacking.
It was a true “lead by example” display of defiance by the big man, positively infecting all around him in the fightback of sorts; there was clearly admiration during handshake time immediately afterwards from the conquering ‘Saders ranks, as well as kudos for his personal efforts from the New Zealand TV commentary panel.
Remember that Etzebeth - who must always be substituted with great reluctance by coach Robbie Fleck - would ideally have been hauled off once it became clear the Stormers, injuries hampering their depth in the engine-room and elsewhere, were going to have a fruitless day in the results column and immediate future challenges had to be considered.
Inevitably, he will be vital once again to the quest to turn around a two-game losing streak when the visitors tackle the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday (09:35 SA time), and he needs to be as fresh as possible.
Yet Etzebeth uncomplainingly soldiered on to the finish in Christchurch, after mid-match injuries to the likes of Chris van Zyl and rookie loose forward Cobus Wiese more or less forced him to stay at his post for the duration.
Later in the weekend educated, rational City Press columnist Simnikiwe Xabanisa, a media colleague I enduringly respect, wrote a piece suggesting Etzebeth needs to tone down his “crazy-eyed routine” and general penchant for arriving pretty sharply at any how’s-your-father flashpoints (if he’s not been some sort of central protagonist himself).
Look, Xabanisa may come to be proved right on this ... perhaps Etzebeth is pushing boundaries to an unnecessary degree, and this will be reflected sooner or later in costly sanction.
But my take is nevertheless slightly different.
I believe that the very devil-eyed hallmark of the player in question is a key part of his motivational make-up, and that if he takes even small, conscious initiatives toward a less confrontational approach you may be stripping him of too much of the natural fire that powers him.
You may be effectively sending him into battle on one leg, rather than his sturdy, often rampaging two.
Rugby, for better or for worse, is much more rigorously policed than it used to be, with third eyes ever-present, whether they be greatly more empowered touch judges (sorry, assistant referees) or hawk-eyed television match officials.
But it is still an uncompromising, contact-based sport and the best forward packs, I am quite adamant, still require your earthy hardebaarde, whether they be in conventional play or when tempers bubble up and there is some pushing and shoving (very seldom do you see a genuine punch-up these days).
You need players who instinctively don’t and won’t take backwards steps, and Etzebeth happens to fall into this category.
But I am also in relatively unashamed defence of him because it is not as though the now 25-year-old is actually falling repeatedly foul of official disciplinary violations.
For someone who operates in the front-line of combat both in actual and testosterone-driven terms, Etzebeth has an astoundingly clean record in the “cards” department.
It may surprise you, in fact, to learn just how many times he has been either yellow- or red-carded in a 49-match Super Rugby career for the Stormers spanning five seasons to now from 2012 (he sat out all of the 2014 campaign injured) ... if the annals I have trawled are accurate, not once.
And if you flip over into his international career, a 54-Test tenure to this point has seen him yellow-carded on a solitary occasion - against Australia at Brisbane last year (also his 50th cap) - and even then it was for the less-than-scandalous offence of not rolling away; he may well have been a fall guy with the Boks on a warning at the time for repeat penalties.
There was also a semblance of controversy and arguably injustice when, in his maiden Test season in 2012, he was cited after another Wallaby encounter for an “attempted” headbutt - sounds a bit like being half-killed? - on Nathan Sharpe and suspended for a fortnight.
One stint in the sin bin for the Boks from well over 50 Tests hardly suggests a serial problem, when you consider the gallery of disciplinary skulduggery of a predecessor in a No 4 shirt like Bakkies Botha.
Indeed, Etzebeth’s disciplinary integrity thus far, at least as far as international card-brandishing is concerned, stands up surprisingly well against forward compatriots like Schalk Burger (six in 86 Tests and the generally even-tempered Victor Matfield (five in 127).
Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.
And growling dogs … um, growl?
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