Eben Etzebeth could well finish his career as the most capped Springbok of all time. Since his 2012 debut, he’s amassed a remarkable 67 caps. In terms of Test experience, he’s already hot on the heels of Bok legends Mark Andrews (77 caps) and Bakkies Botha (85 caps).
Victor Matfield is still some way off with a record-breaking 127 caps. But Etzebeth is only 26-years-old; there’s still plenty of petrol in his tank.
His engine could conceivably keep roaring until at least the 2023 World Cup. Matfield retired at a very ripe 38, which is admittedly an exception to the rule. Etzebeth will be 31 come 2023 and could well usurp Matfield’s title by then.
He could even go on to challenge legendary cap holders at rugby’s pinnacle. Will we ultimately hear Etzebeth’s name mentioned in the same breath as George Gregan (139 caps), Brian O’ Driscoll (141 caps) and the man currently at the summit – one Richard Hugh McCaw (148 caps)?
It’s possible for these heights to be scaled if Etzebeth is well managed.
And therein lies the rub. I can’t recall the last time during the past six years when a fit Etzebeth didn’t start a Test match. Given how he always goes full tilt, with no quarter asked and none given, it’s an absolute marvel that his body didn’t break down sooner than 2017’s end-of-year tour.
A much-needed rest has been a long time coming and it finally arrived when Etzebeth suffered a serious shoulder injury against Wales in November.
Etzebeth has thus far missed all of the 2018 Super Rugby season and three Tests against England in June. Lood de Jager also fell prey to injury after bolting out of this year’s starting gates like a race-horse with Destruction on its back.
With two front-line locks crocked, Franco Mostert got well-deserved opportunities to put in 80-minute shifts for the Boks. And De Jager’s young Bulls partner, RG Snyman proved that his impressive pedigree can translate into eye-popping on-field performances.
Snyman and Mostert aren’t the only tall timber in fine form. Pieter-Steph Du Toit seems to have put injuries behind him and is now realising his considerable potential. Rassie Erasmus has also found space in his enlarged squad for Mostert’s hard-grafting Lions cohort Marvin Orie.
There’s plenty of stock to choose from. Despite Erasmus claiming he’d have no qualms starting Etzebeth against Argentina in SA’s Rugby Championship opener at Kings Park on August 18, the prudent decision would be to have Snyman and Mostert build on the success they achieved as a combination in June.
Give Etzebeth 20-30 minutes off the bench in the first two matches against Argentina. That way, he will be all-systems-go against Australia on September 8, and his No 4 jersey will be bursting at the seams when he fronts the haka come September 15.
Etzebeth’s dogged captaincy was a highlight during a dismal time for the Boks under Allister Coetzee. His good mate Siya Kolisi is the new Springbok captain. Etzebeth described being handed the Bok leadership reins as the best day of his life. But I see merit in Nick Mallet’s statement that “Etzebeth is known for his physicality and ability to get stuck into the opposition. You need to be [able to withdraw] from the impact situation to make clear decisions as the captain on the field.”
Like his predecessor, Bakkies Botha, Etzebeth is at his irrepressible best in the enforcer role. Outside of Tendai Mtawarira, he’s the most qualified squad member and by extension a natural leader. Let him do what comes naturally by bossing and bullying the opposition into submission. But, also, manage his game-time more proactively now that he’s free from the burden of captaincy.
Eben Etzebeth is a phenomenal athlete but he’s also a human being. The powers-that-be must look after him so that he’s able to unleash at optimum level for a long time to come.
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