The ONE Bok comfort over 'Etzebeth-gate'

Eben Etzebeth (Getty Images)
Eben Etzebeth (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Like it or not, three scenarios appear to remain on the table when it comes to senior Springbok forward Eben Etzebeth’s presence at the 2019 World Cup.

One is that SA Rugby stick defiantly to their current policy of backing his continued deployment in Japan, despite the constantly swirling accusations of racism and violence against him and friends emanating from a much-publicised night out in Langebaan before the event.

A second is that they bow to political and some community-based pressure in South Africa - there can be no doubting that the whole matter amounts to an embarrassing public-relations flashpoint for the Boks on the global stage - and withdraw him from squad entirely.

Another, perhaps? It’s more of a “middle ground”: that the hiatus between the closure of the Bok pool campaign (against minnows Canada at Kobe on Tuesday, where Etzebeth is part of the match 23) and the likely quarter-final later in the month is deemed an opportunity for the player to fly home and either clear his name - he has protested his innocence - or face up to possible charges, even if that could yet facilitate a return to his professional duties for the business end of the tournament.

However the issue turns out, be pretty sure that head coach Rassie Erasmus, a meticulous planner, will have contingency plans in his mind, just in case.

On that front, the Boks are fortunately abundantly-stocked with alternative options - extraordinarily so, in fact - despite Etzebeth being the most experienced (currently 82 caps) and arguably most highly-regarded of the SA second-rowers at the World Cup.

A specialist No 4 “front” lock - generally regarded as the enforcer berth - and the first choice there when fully fit almost always since his debut as a raw 20-year-old in 2012, Etzebeth currently has the lanky, mobile, yet barely less bruising RG Snyman as his main cover in the position.

Snyman has already been pleasingly industrious and assertive when given opportunities at the tournament, whether as a starter or impact element, and increasingly confident in the green and gold after a now 19-cap international career.

At 24 (Etzebeth is almost 28), he has especially plentiful years of Bok service still ahead of him.

But while the slightly less physically imposing - though huge-hearted and extremely durable - Franco Mostert is best regarded more as a No 5 “middle” lock, the seemingly first-choice incumbent there, Lood de Jager, who earned rave reviews as a youngster at the last World Cup in the UK in 2015, is pleasingly versatile between the two berths.

He, too, at 2.06m and well over 120kg, could come right into the picture for the No 4 shirt and you wouldn’t be putting out a callow rookie, in his case, in the crunch knockout phase, either: he has 42 Test appearances and is in mounting, cracking form in Japan after a lengthy layoff earlier in 2019.

Another thing to consider is that blindside flank Pieter-Steph du Toit is a converted lock still with excellent knowledge of and familiarity to tight-five demands: he has started Tests for South Africa both as a No 5 (mostly, admittedly) and four lock.

So really, the Springboks began this tournament with as many as five genuinely world-class second-rowers in their ranks ... and would simply be “down” to four in the event that Etzebeth suddenly became unavailable.

It is a superior situation to the 2015 event, when the Boks nevertheless ended with creditable bronze after a disastrous start in Brighton.

Then, Du Toit (just four caps at the time) was still largely deemed a lock option, as he was one of a quartet named by then-coach Heyneke Meyer in that slot for the campaign: the others were ultra-veteran, 38-year-old Victor Matfield, and a then much less seasoned Etzebeth (37 caps) and De Jager (12).

One designated loose forward, the hefty Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts, was able to cover lock ... although, with respect, not to the same degree of competence as someone like the modern-day Du Toit.

Matfield’s already vastly-decorated presence at RWC 2015, remember, was impeded to a significant degree in mid-event by a hamstring problem he’d been carrying since that year’s Rugby Championship. He missed three matches because of it: pool games against Scotland and the USA, plus the quarter-final against Wales.

That did leave the Boks just a little light in second-row options for a while - they would not have wanted any other injury-related snags in the position before the popular Loftus figure returned to action for the semi-final (against New Zealand) and a career swansong in the bronze-medal playoff against Argentina.

Losing Etzebeth, rightly or wrongly, during what is left of RWC 2019?

There is very, very ample cover …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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