JOHANNESBURG – Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth appears to be in a race against time to be fit for next week’s four-Test tour opener against Ireland in Dublin.
While the stand-in skipper and Bok boss Allister Coetzee on Thursday did their best to assure the rugby public the second-row forward will be fit for the Test, the reality is Etzebeth won’t have trained full-out with his teammates before this weekend’s departure to Europe and will only, probably, get on to the training ground in Dublin next Monday.
Etzebeth, who was named stand-in captain in place of the injured Warren Whiteley in June and has done a good job in the role, hurt his ankle at a conditioning and planning camp in Cape Town last week.
His ankle had been put into a moon-boot to help stabilise it and speed up the healing process.
The aggressive lock explained his situation to the media on Thursday. “The ankle’s much better and I’m set to join team training on Saturday (before flying out of OR Tambo International)... but I’ll only take part in 50% of the training session. I’m likely to be back in full training in Ireland on Monday,” he said.
Coetzee added: “I’m happy with the controlled session Eben has done, that is running in a straight line and some agility work. There’s progress and he’s on track.”
The Bok boss, though, will hope Etzebeth comes through Saturday’s session and then again on Monday, otherwise he may have to start thinking about a new captain and second-row partnership.
Siya Kolisi is the obvious choice to lead the side should Etzebeth not shake off the injury, while the other locks in the squad include Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert and rookie Ruan Botha, who was the surprise call-up to replace the injured Jean-Luc du Preez earlier this week.
But with Etzebeth now battling to get over the injury that has halted his training this week, Botha’s call-up is now more understandable.
There are no other injury concerns in the Bok camp ahead of their departure to Europe for Tests against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales.
Etzebeth said the tour would likely define the success – or not – of the Boks’ season. After a dismal 2016 when they failed to win on the year-end tour in four outings, they have only lost twice in 2017 – both times to the All Blacks, the last being a one-point game at Newlands.
They have got the better of France and Argentina, and drawn both Tests with Australia.
“The tour will determine whether our year is successful or not,” said Etzebeth on Thursday.
“Ireland will be a big Test first up, in conditions that will be quite different from when we last faced them, in June here last year,” he said. “But that is no excuse.”
In Coetzee’s first series in charge last year, the Boks struggled to get past Ireland in a three-Test series on home soil.
They lost the first Test 26-20 and edged the next two 32-26 and 19-13 to take the series.
“It was very different then, we’d only been together as a group for three to four weeks; now it’s nearly two years later, and we (the players and coaches) all know each other better.”
Coetzee also said Ireland would be a big Test in the first match of the trip. “They’re going to be very different to when we last faced them. Last year was at the end of their season, now they’re in the beginning of their season.
“They’ll be stronger at home, they’re a quality side with a good set-piece, their kicking game is strong and they’ve got a good rush defence.
“We’re going to have to show a lot of patience against them, but it’s going to be crucial for us to get the tour off with a good start.
“We simply have to start winning away from home now... that would be a major stepping stone for us.”
Having a fully fit squad, including a captain who everyone has become accustomed to in the last few months, to pick from would go a long way to achieving that goal.