Etzebeth not guilty, ready for England
The Springboks received the news they wanted to on Tuesday night as Eben Etzebeth was found not guilty of any wrong-doing in last weekend’s test against Scotland in Edinburgh.
It means they can now put a disjointed build-up to the final test of the year against England behind them and go all out in the last days to get themselves prepared and up for a match in which they should be bristling to make a statement to the northern hemisphere officials who appeared to target one of their most important players.
After a marathon disciplinary hearing, it was confirmed by the Six Nations Disciplinary Committee that heard the Etzebeth case for alleged eye-gouging in last week’s 21-10 win over Scotland at Murrayfield that the big lock was not guilty. They eventually saw what everyone else with the exception of English citing commissioner Alan Mansel appeared to see, and they decreed that if there was any contact with the eye, it was an accident.
Of course if the player in question had been anyone other than the outsized and super-strong Etzebeth, it is unlikely that the incident would ever have been seen as sufficient to necessitate a hearing. It does appear that Etzebeth, because of his influence on the physical battle, is being targeted by officials in the same way as his predecessor Bakkies Botha was at a stage of his career.
After six months as a Bok, however, it is hard other than the fresh air headbutt on Nathan Sharpe to recall many instances where a comparison between the Stormers lock and the former Bok enforcer could be deemed fair. What the whole controversy has done is call in question the wisdom of having officials from a country that a touring team is to play next acting as citing commissioners.
What made the citing appear more bizarre was the indication from the alleged victim, Scotland flyhalf Greig Laidlaw, that not only had their not been any harm done, he also didn’t believe that there had been malicious intent. It was apparently the same from the Scotland management.
So why was there even a hearing?
The conspiracy theorists might be able forward a reason, based around a suspicion that would have been strengthened had they seen the Springboks train at the Latymer School on Tuesday afternoon. With Etzebeth not present because he was away defending his case, coach Heyneke Meyer ended up sitting out almost his entire pack, with Adriaan Strauss and Juandre Kruger the only forwards training.
Of course there is sufficient doubt over one of the remaining forwards, looshead prop Gurthro Steenkamp, to have the Boks a bit bothered in the build-up even without the unnecessary angst caused by the uncertainty over Etzebeth. We will know later on Wednesday, when the team is announced, whether Steenkamp will play against England, or whether the Boks may have to field effectively their fourth choice loosehead at Twickenham.
First choice Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira flew home in the second week of the tour after suffering heart palpitations on the eve of the first match against Ireland in Dublin, and CJ van der Linde, who ended up starting against Ireland, was flown home on Tuesday night after sustaining a hamstring injury in training on Monday.
At least having Etzebeth available will bring some much needed continuity, and the 21-year-old is a massive presence. His teammates will surely be incensed enough at the treatment he was dished up over the past few days by the officials to be extra motivated for a game which South African rugby players seldom lack any motivations for.
The doubt over Steenkamp will not be the only point of interest when the team is announced at lunch-time South African time. JP Pietersen is still battling with his groin injury and did not train on Tuesday. It is starting to appear unlikely he will wear the No 14 against England. His place will be taken by Lwazi Mvovo.
Should Steenkamp not be cleared to play, Heinke van der Merwe, who played well when he came on as a replacement in the first tour match against Ireland in Dublin, will be wearing the No 1.
But in reality it may not be a good idea to read too much into who trained and who didn’t on Tuesday. The Boks are battered and bruised after a long year and Meyer has already said he intends managing the players through the week.
Jean de Villiers for instance hardly trained last week because of flu and yet still played against Scotland, and it was a similar story with Jannie du Plessis, who has sat out this week too.