Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Eben Etzebeth will feel he has gone full circle if the Springbok enforcer makes the fitness cut for the three-match home series against England in June.
But that “if” remains pretty relevant.
He has not yet appeared in Super Rugby this year – his franchise the Stormers have completed the first eight of their 16 ordinary-season matches - and a few more rounds will probably tick by before his keenly-awaited return for the currently tottering Newlands outfit.
In late January, the suggestion from the camp was that Etzebeth would require a further four months of rehab from his shoulder injury, so he is cutting it relatively fine for involvement in the England series.
The last couple of weeks of May, if that period remains roughly his realistic comeback target, sees the Stormers in action against the Sunwolves away (19th) and back at home against compatriots the Lions (26th).
Squeezed into the week ahead of the England series, of course, is the neutral-turf meeting on June 2 between South Africa and Wales in Washington DC, although that Bok team looks like being fairly experimental and heavily weighted in favour of overseas-based players, given the concerns over time-zone havoc on SA-based bodies.
But if Etzebeth is back to suitable levels of match sharpness, the genuinely world-class 26-year-old should be at the fulcrum of coach Rassie Erasmus’s plans to topple the English, beginning in Johannesburg on June 9.
Should that mark his return to Test combat, it would trigger memories of his earliest Bok appearances as a callow youngster against the very same foes the last time they toured here in 2012.
Then, his obvious talent recognised by then-coach Heyneke Meyer, he was paired initially with similarly untried, Bulls-based Juandre Kruger; they remained the pretty successful second-row firm for the duration of that series (won 2-0 with one draw).
Kruger, now 32 and still active in the French Top 14, last played international rugby in late 2013.
But Etzebeth has become an absolutely integral figure for the Boks, seemingly with many productive years still ahead of him and already sporting 67 Test caps.
The lingering uncertainty around his readiness for the 2018 England series, though, means Erasmus will be understandably thinking about how to plug the specialist No 4 void in the event that he cannot use the incumbent.
Which is why the new national mastermind is likely to be a particularly keen onlooker when handily fit-again RG Snyman, 23, occupies that berth for the Bulls in Saturday’s Super Rugby derby against the Sharks in Durban.
The game sees an especially high-calibre duel, at least on paper, at lock: Snyman rejoining Lood de Jager, an established Bok and playing compelling rugby at five, means the Bulls field their premier alliance … and ditto the Sharks, who will not wish to take a backward step in the department through their own tall timber of Ruan Botha, the captain, and Stephan Lewies.
De Jager, with both the right physical dimensions and attitude, is quite seamlessly transferable to a No 4 jersey if necessary, so he could switch roles if Etzebeth fails to return to fitness for the outset of the England challenge.
Replacements at No 5, in that instance, are also not in short supply, with either of Pieter-Steph du Toit or Franco Mostert ready and willing to do duty anew for their country there.
But until he fractured a cheekbone at a frustrating juncture - late in the Bulls’ rousing first half against the Chiefs in Hamilton on March 16 – Snyman had been one of the most eye-catching South African second-rowers in the competition.
Increasingly happy to perform the key “grunt” aspects of the front lock’s duty, it had not stopped him from routinely showing off his considerable athletic qualities in open play.
Certainly seeing the 2.06m, 120kg Snyman on the rampage is one of the more attention-hogging aspects of Super Rugby.
The Potchefstroom-born competitor has made the orthodox, natural progression to the fringes of Test status: SA Schools, SA under-20, SA ‘A’, and also a succulent taste of the senior Bok shirt on duty against the Barbarians in 2016.
Should Etzebeth fail to beat the egg-timer for availability against England, a Bok pairing of Snyman and De Jager (a comforting extension of their Bulls alliance) would, you’d think, do anything but let the national cause down in the second row.
First, though, it would be mightily helpful if they dominated direct Sharks opponents who will be no mere “turnstiles” for them at Kings Park …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing