Cape Town – An
uninterrupted Super Rugby season for core engine-room figure Eben Etzebeth:
that will be a particularly fervent wish of the Stormers management, and the
player himself, ahead of already fast-looming Super Rugby 2019.
The Newlands-based side kick off their campaign away to the Bulls in Pretoria on February 16, and Etzebeth is among several Springboks on the books now getting a well-earned break of a few weeks before they join their franchise colleagues already preparing for the new season.
He will be an especially valued addition to the plans when he does report in, as the brawny lock enforcer – yet also deceptively mobile athlete – has played surprisingly little Super Rugby for someone who has been active at that level and a faithful servant of the Stormers exclusively since 2012.
Etzebeth has a total of 54 appearances in the competition, but that tally is stretched over seven seasons which means his average annual contribution is 7.71 matches.
That is not a lot for a competition that nowadays might involve 16 round-robin fixtures plus anything between one and three extra games for outfits reaching the knockout phase.
It is decidedly not, of course, down to Etzebeth shirking his duties in any way: he has simply fallen victim incredibly often to relatively long-term injuries that have tended to lay him low in exactly the months of the year where the SANZAAR competition occupies centre stage.
The bogey really began in his second year at that level, 2013, when his Super Rugby contribution amounted to roughly just half of the roster.
Then on the Bok end-of-year tour of that year, after he had been back on the park for a while, an irksome foot injury in the very final Test, against France in Paris, ruled him out of the entire 2014 Stormers season.
More recently, the phenomenon of a “total write-off” for Etzebeth, now 27, in the competition surfaced again as a shoulder injury – one that even caused some murmurs that his career was under threat – kept him dormant throughout the 2018 Super Rugby season where the Stormers badly under-delivered with an 11th-placed overall finish.
The curse has left him in the rare situation of being a top southern-hemisphere player with considerably more Test caps (currently 74) than Super Rugby ones, where he is 20 shy of that green-and-gold number despite every year being characterised, structurally, by more franchise than international matches.
Remember that a callow but seemingly fearless Etzebeth made his debuts in both Super Rugby and Tests in 2012.
Just by comparison, someone like Newlands ally Pieter-Steph du Toit – now plying his trade primarily as a budding blindside flank but often Etzebeth’s second-row partner for the Stormers and Boks – has his caps tallies the more traditional way around: 67 in Super Rugby (2012-18, Sharks and then Stormers) and 45 for South Africa (2013 to present).
A glance at the stats of a slightly earlier generation of leading Bok locks, Bulls favourites Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, also confirm that generally players are busier in their careers at Super Rugby level than for their countries.
Matfield is the all-time leading Bok cap-holder with 127, but even some “gap years” from the Bulls when he served Toulon and Northampton didn’t prevent him from amassing 148 Super Rugby appearances (including a handful as a rookie for the Cats).
Similarly, Botha boasts 85 Bok appearances but exactly 100 in Super Rugby, and all for the Bulls.
Etzebeth was initially due to turn out for the Barbarians against Argentina at Twickenham last Saturday, but he played no part on match-day, despite being part of the unique “dressing room spirit” around the event.
That may have been only because he had played a bit more rugby than expected on comeback from injury against Wales a week earlier: intended for an impact role in the Test, he instead played some 69 minutes because RG Snyman was forced off the pitch early.
Tuning up next year for what will be a second crack at a World Cup for him, Etzebeth will be hugely keen to play a fulsome role at last for his beloved Stormers.
He has often made clear how happy he is with his life in Cape Town, suggesting that joining the exodus to lucrative foreign climes – he would command top dollar, as they say – is not a fait accompli in his case.
That said, Newlands is beset with varying instability, including a much-publicised financial crisis and associated legal dramas, major changes in administrative leadership and some personality clashes and disputes.
Against that backdrop, leading players whose contracts at the ground run out in 2019 – pack heavyweights like Etzebeth, Du Toit and Frans Malherbe included – understandably must be weighing up their options.
In the event that Etzebeth is “going out” for the Stormers, he must want to do so with the proverbial bang …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing