Eben Etzebeth’s unexpected appearance on the flank for French club Toulon has understandably piqued some interest, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
To start with a disclaimer of sorts, it has to be kept in mind that Etzebeth’s move to blindside flank in Toulon’s 35-13 victory over 14-man Stade Francais this past weekend was only necessitated by an injury to teammate Swan Rebbadj during the warm-ups.
Nevertheless, Etzebeth’s largely accomplished performance in this quite unfamiliar position unsurprisingly caught the attention of onlookers.
It was a shake-up to the general school of thought that Etzebeth is a specialist No 4 enforcer in the second row. And, of course, this is where he will continue to be primarily deployed by his Toulon coach, but Patrice Collazo may have also stumbled upon an interesting alternative.
It’s a positional switch that Etzebeth embraced when the situation demanded it, and it’s something South Africa’s national coaches may also just pay some glancing attention to.
Earlier this month, national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said they were continuing to plan full steam ahead for the British & Irish Lions tour.
After all the disruptions over the past 12 months, the Boks would need to get pretty creative in terms of squad composition and warm-up games if they were to be ready for the tour in July – whether it takes place in South Africa or the UK.
Couple this with the fact that incumbent No 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit has not played any rugby since the World Cup due to a career-threatening leg injury, and you start to get a sense of the alternatives that may need to be considered.
Du Toit’s rehab is said to be progressing well, but he was unable to be reintegrated into team training throughout the domestic season, and it remains to be seen when he will finally be able to get some game time under the belt.
Ironically, Du Toit is the poster boy for making a remarkably successful transition from the second row to flank, and has often reiterated how even if the number on his jersey changes, his game does not.
Ultimately, Etzebeth’s unexpected stint at flank is likely to be a temporary stand-in job, but there have been clear signs that he has the athleticism to adapt to different challenges.
More than anything, though, it’s the return to fitness and form for the 29-year-old that should also be celebrated at a time when numerous players have battled with injuries or inconsistency.
The Springboks desperately need some of their big-name players to start banking meaningful game time, and to find some form in the hopes of a return to international action this year.
When that times comes, there is sure to be some creative thinking needed in terms of preparation and squad selection. These were key building blocks on the Springboks’ journey to World Cup success, and the clever ploy to pick regular hooker Schalk Brits at No 8 for a ‘smaller’ pool game against Namibia was a prime example of doing things a little differently, and to good effect.
Of course, it’s far too premature to suggest Etzebeth could have a future as a regular flank, but when desperate times call for desperate measures, the fact he’s capable of doing so may be a trump card to at least keep in the memory bank.
“We weren’t worried about putting Eben in the back-row. Physically he’s feeling really well”
Toulon coach Patrice Collazo after handing Eben Etzebeth his first start at 6
— Illtud W. Dafydd (@IlltudDafydd) January 25, 2021