Coach pins hopes on youthful combination

2013-04-17 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Do not be too surprised if a remarkably youthful combination of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit starts in the second row for South Africa in the opening Test of the season against Italy in Durban on June 8.

For several years up until 2011, the Springboks boasted a feared “old firm” at lock in the shape of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.

The athletic, lineout specialist Matfield retired after earning 110 caps for his country, while Botha still plies his trade aggressively for Toulon and has not been written off as a Test candidate, aged 33, and after 76 Bok appearances.

But it seems quite possible that, in the second season of Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as national coach, they will go to the opposite extreme — pinning their faith on the 21-year-old Etzebeth in the number four jersey and Du Toit, only 20, wearing number five. Some might brand that madness. But bear in mind that the abrasive Etzebeth — expected to be back in action for the Stormers very shortly after an ankle injury — made a massive breakthrough in 2012, to such an extent that by the end of it he already sported 11 caps and looked incredibly at home in the international environment.

Now Du Toit — like Etzebeth, Cape Town-born, but representing the Sharks in Super Rugby — may also be fast-tracked into the Test picture in the blink of an eyelid.

The strong but mobile and skilful utility forward — he can also play blindside flank very effectively — was already spoken about glowingly by Meyer last season, when he contributed significantly to the Baby Boks winning the IRB Junior World Championship, and those eulogies clearly aren’t about to stop.

The coach did not hide his admiration when he addressed the media after a training session at Westerford High School on Monday during the first extended Bok squad mini-camp of the year.

“I’ve told [forwards coach] Johan van Graan, who I rate as one of the best lineout coaches in the world, that I don’t care if he sleeps at Pieter-Steph du Toit’s house for three weeks, or at the Sharks, but he really needs to start working with him.

“That’s because I truly believe, although he plays like a four, he can be one of the best fives ever.

“It will take time, but I’m thankful to the Sharks for [giving him some starts this year]. He’s only 20, but is starting to call lineouts as well.”

Meyer has witnessed several potential Bok number five-suited locks cease to become available for South Africa for various reasons over the past couple of years, including Matfield, Johann Muller, Danie Rossouw (who can cover both slots) and, most recently, Andries Bekker, who is Japan-bound to Kobelco Steelers after the Super Rugby season.

He said Bekker’s departure for Asia was a blow, as he was playing some of his best rugby again and was an established master not only at lineout jumping itself, but also in making the all-important throw-in calls.

Meyer will still be able to summon the likes of Juandre Kruger and Van der Merwe, even though the former also goes abroad soon to link up with Racing Metro in France. But it does seem as though the Boks plan some daring exposure for Du Toit during the June Test window period.

Meyer reiterated that “obviously the ideal is to pick players based in SA, especially as you can involve them in camps like these”.

But he also conceded: “You have to field your best side and rugby is changing [in terms of international player movement].”

On that theme, Meyer talked up the continued usefulness to his cause of Bath-based former Stormers/WP flank Francois Louw.

“You want guys who are prepared to die for South Africa and Francois Louw is someone like that. From day one, he’s always said how he’s dreamt of playing for the Boks.

“He probably changed our season [last year], coming in with his work on the floor, combined with someone like Duane [Vermeulen]. He’s been great.”

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