Best to break Etzebeth in gently

2012-06-06 00:00

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.

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 Kitsoff looked more lethargic than many team-mates as they crashed to a 23-19 defeat and was substituted at half time.

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 U20 combat, he clearly struggled to get a good head of steam at the Danie Craven Stadium.

On Saturday another rookie at Super Rugby level, his Stormers tight-five colleague Eben Etzebeth, will be expected to crank his game up a critical notch if he is chosen for the Bok starting XV in the first Test against England at King’s Park.

With Stormers second-row partner Andries Bekker clearly operating 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 it has been 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.

There have just been telltale signs lately that Etzebeth is succumbing to some degree of fatigue.

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.

It might 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.

We shouldn’t doubt his ability or determination to put such fears to rest.

But at the same time I am inclined to 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 lineout ace 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.

Etzebeth is a magnificent prospect, make no mistake.

But surely it is in his and South Africa’s best interests to break him in just a little gently.

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