Opinion: South Africa’s colossus Eben Etzebeth rises to big occasion for Toulon

Jon Cardinelli

Springbok and Toulon lock Eben Etzebeth delivered a timely reminder of his power and influence in the European Challenge Cup semi-final win over Saracens, writes Jon Cardinelli.

Three months ago, Etzebeth was unrated and unwanted by his Toulon bosses.

The South African lock battled with concussion on the back of a taxing 2021 season, and sustained a serious calf injury upon his return to play in February 2022.

While some lamented Etzebeth’s bad run of luck, others questioned his loyalty and dedication.

Toulon president Bernard Lemaître described Etzebeth as “a clear handicap for the club”. It was a bizarre statement at the time, and has aged like milk as Toulon have advanced to the final stage of the Challenge Cup.

A powerful response

Etzebeth’s most recent performance served as a powerful response. Toulon needed a physical talisman in a game of this nature. Etzebeth was aggressive yet measured in his display at the collisions and breakdowns.

The last-gasp tackle that denied Saracens a try in the second half summed up his work-rate – and perhaps his loyalty. That certainly wasn’t the act of a player who is in it for the paycheque.

The manner in which he disrupted the Saracens machine at the set-piece was nothing short of majestic. As was the case in the 2021 series between the Springboks and the Lions, Etzebeth outplayed Maro Itoje.

On this occasion, though, the contest was more one-sided. Etzebeth harassed the Saracens jumpers at the lineout, and even forced a couple of turnovers.

Some might say that he has proven his point. Etzebeth, however, will be determined to go one better and to steer Toulon to a Challenge Cup title victory over Lyon on May 27.

That result would mark a successful end to his largely disrupted three-year stint in France.

Etzebeth has opted to further his career with the Sharks in Durban. Toulon’s loss will be the Sharks’ gain.

The Sharks have confirmed that Etzebeth will play a wide-ranging role over the course of a five-year contract. While the veteran should feature in the big games of the United Rugby Championship and in the all-important Champions Cup, he will also be tasked with mentoring the franchise’s younger locks and forwards.

That said, the Sharks will have to make peace with the fact that Etzebeth is an important piece of the Bok puzzle. He will need to be managed smartly at club level in the coming seasons if the Boks are going to get the best out of him.

The Boks may also need to box clever in this respect. Last year, Etzebeth represented South Africa in 13 out of a possible 15 matches – 12 Tests and the South Africa ‘A’ fixture against the Lions.

Etzebeth played some of his best rugby over the course of 2021, and was particularly abrasive and influential in the final Test of the season against England.

That sort of workload will take a toll in the long run, though. The Bok coaches would be wise to revise their management strategy of this national asset in 2022 and beyond.

Etzebeth looks set to become a Test centurion in the coming months. One would expect him to play at least two Tests against Wales in July, and to face off against the All Blacks and Wallabies in the Rugby Championship. The Boks will need his physicality and experience in the more challenging end-of-year tour fixtures against Ireland and France.

Outside of those matches, he should be managed carefully by club and country to ensure that he thrives in the latter stages of his career. The 2023 World Cup is around the corner, and a fit-and-firing Etzebeth should give the Boks an edge when they travel to France to defend their title.

The Boks need to develop a contingency plan, of course, and resting Etzebeth at key stages over the course of the 2022 season will allow for the development of a number 4 alternative.

While the Boks boast several experienced options at number 5 lock – Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, and the versatile Pieter-Steph du Toit, to name a few – they have fewer seasoned number 4s at their disposal.

Jean-Luc du Preez was trialled in the position for South Africa ‘A’ last season, before succumbing to injury. Stormers hardman Salmaan Moerat toured with the Boks in late 2021, but didn’t receive any game time.

These players, and others who have made an impression in the URC, need to be backed sooner or later on the Test stage.

The Boks are fortunate to have Etzebeth, the form lock in world rugby, at their disposal. The management of this player – and indeed the development of the second- and third-choice options – may shape their success across the 2022 season and in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup.

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