Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre has elaborated on his criticism of Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth as his side prepare for the Challenge Cup final and a potential shot at the Top 14 play-offs.
Back in January the French side’s president had cause for concern and with relegation becoming a strong possibility during a poor stretch of games, Lemaitre put blame on Etzebeth’s price, international commitments and injuries.
When speaking to French newspaper Var-Matin during the height of the struggles he referred to the enormous lock as a “handicap”.
Ironically, Etzebeth’s fine form of late has been a driving factor behind Toulon‘s resurgence and European success; the side are also clear of relegation and hunting for a play-off spot. However, the in-form lock will leave after this season to join the Sharks.
“There is a double problem in recruiting: the salary cap and the JIFFs [French-eligible players],” he said in January.
“You can’t do just anything, so I pay special attention to the situation of internationals because they can be an opportunity or a handicap. In this case, players like Eben Etzebeth and Facundo Isa are a clear handicap for the club.”
Former Toulon lock Bakkies Botha, also a giant Springbok, joined in on the Etzebeth criticism, suggesting French club rugby is too much for his successor to handle when the retired lock told Midi Olympique that he is the “best second-row in the world, but I regret he only shows his face with the Springboks.”
Jumping back to the present, Lemaitre explained Toulon’s return to prominence in the Top 14.
“It’s a magic trick… No, more seriously, there are a lot of objective factors in this return to the fore,” joked the president.
“Eben Etzebeth took over in February, Charles Ollivon and Baptiste Serin also.
“I won’t teach you anything by telling you that they are very important in the squad. The end of the Six Nations tournament also allowed us to recover Jean-Baptiste Gros and Gabin Villiere and behind that, Franck Azema was able to restore the players’ confidence,” explained the Toulon president, who then reflected on his criticism of Etzebeth.
“In reality, there was above all a misunderstanding when I indicated that the situation of Eben Etzebeth or Facundo Isa was a handicap for clubs like ours because these guys play five months out of twelve. I was talking about their situation, not about the quality of the men.
“We will be very careful,” he added about recruiting South Africans and Argentines in the future.
“If we recruit them, they will be very high-level players with a winning mindset. This state of mind, Eben Etzebeth has it. He can’t stand being dominated and, in fact, showed it to Maro Itoje the other day.”
When questioned if he was surprised by comments from Etzebeth’s predecessor, he replied: “No. It was Bakkies, that’s all. He has his pride as a great Springbok and a former Toulon player.
“He would like his spiritual son – I put quotation marks to ‘spiritual son’ because they are not there in terms of affinities – to look like him and this is not the case because he is not the same gender of man.
“Eben, to our great disappointment, decided to terminate his contract [he had two years left at the RCT] because he is in love, his wife works in the Southern Hemisphere and he wants a family.
“He’s a kid, Eben, a kid in the body of a colossus. I saw how unfortunate he was, during the Christmas holidays, for example, to be so far from his family. He’s a kid, including on the physical level, where the slightest ailment…Botha didn’t care about himself. Eben is more sensitive.”