Another piece of the Springboks puzzle presented itself with the successful return to competitive rugby of the influential and imposing giant Eben Etzebeth, who will be integral to the hosts three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
Etzebeth, back from a broken finger, played for Toulon against Montpellier in France’s Top 14 and while the return was in a losing cause, everything about his night screamed victory to the Springboks coaching leadership of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus.
Etzebeth consistently is in the elite top three of the game when it comes to second rowers. On form, he is always pushing for the mantle of world’s best; when not quite operating at full capacity, he still makes a ”best of’ locks shortlist.
Etzebeth’s showdown with Maro Itoje will be one of the individual highlights of a three-Test series that starts at the Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town and plays out with two successive Tests at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
Etzebeth, pre his injury, was in outstanding form for Toulon and he is doing justice to the South African influence in the south of France. Joe van Niekerk will always have a special place in the hearts of rugby fanatics in Toulon, having played 129 matches and captained the team during one of their most successful periods.
There also isn’t a player loved more than Bakkies Botha, the former Springboks hard man, who epitomised everything there is to love about a rugby player. Former Toulon and French coach Bernard Laporte famously described Botha as his ideal rugby player and the player he would always have wanted to be.
Etzebeth’s Toulon lost 29-10 against a Montpellier team looking decidedly different to the one that beat Bath in Europe’s Challenge Cup final. Montpellier still used seven South Africans in the match, with the midfield pairing of Jan Serfontein and Johan Goosen the most prominent of the combinations.
Handre Pollard, who returned after eight months out of the game in the semi-final win, did not play and is being groomed to play a starting role in the final at Twickenham on the 21st May.
Pollard’s fitness and performance will be a focus point for the Bok coaches, but they will be pleased that Etzebeth, introduced in the 44th minute, got through 36 minutes, in which his physicality was reported to be prominent.
Etzebeth, given he is available, will start against the Lions and at the moment RG Snyman is up against the clock to make his return from injury. Another World Cup-winning lock, Lood de Jager, remains doubtful for the series.
The Springboks have the luxury of playing the best player in the world, Stormers flank/lock Pieter-Steph du Toit at lock, while Franco Mostert adds to the second row options.
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