DURBAN - He is a bit like a firecracker with a short fuse, waiting for the smallest spark to set him off, but this is why the South African public loves Eben Etzebeth. However, when he was handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Mr Cool himself, Warren Whiteley, many were worried.
Etzebeth has always been a fiery character, and with the retirement of Bakkies Botha, South African rugby was crying out for an explosive hardman. Into the void stepped the then 21-year-old Etzebeth.
He was applauded for his ferocity, aggression and his devastation with, or without, ball in hand. However, it does come with the territory that a man with these qualities may find himself on the wrong end of a referee who is less keen to see the opposition bashed and bruised mercilessly.
Yellow cards and stern warnings have always been a part of Etzebeth’s rugby career - and again, for fans, it was acceptable and just part of the territory.
But, and it is a big but, can you really afford to have the captain of the Springboks cooling his heels for 10 minutes a game?
The Stormers lock's first game as captain was in the final June match between France and the Boks, but by then all the fire had left the series as the brow-beaten French looked more keen to get home than to niggle the notoriously hot-headed Etzebeth. In fact, he nabbed a try rather than scuffle or fight.
Etzebeth continued his perfect run as a winning captain last week, in Port Elizabeth, as the Boks defeated the Argentines in their first Rugby Championship match. More importantly however for the stand in captain, he did not blow up, when there was every chance to.
Etzebeth lined up against Tomás Lavanini, the Pumas lock who has had a few close encounters with the Bok hardman in recent times.
In the 2015 World Cup semi-final, the two grappled and half of each team had to intervene to try and pull the two pieces of tall timber apart. Lavanini, like Etzebeth, has always had a hard side to him, sometimes verging on dangerous, illegal and reckless.
However, on Saturday there was no clashing, nor even niggle from Etzebeth as he focused on his duties as a lock, rather than a brawler for the Boks.
Salta now looms large for the Boks, with partisan crowds and a hostile ground. More of the same has to be expected from Etzebeth if he is to help add depth to the leadership group of a young Bok side.
Additionally, he needs to truly justify his elevation as captain above his own franchise captain Siya Kolisi. Kolisi led Etzebeth in Super Rugby and that sort of belief in making him captain seems partly to be a reason for his revival in the Bok jersey. Kolisi is the vice, and again is playing a role in strengthening the leadership of the Boks, but he does deserve a chance at the armband.
Of course, Etzebeth has done nothing wrong, and perhaps is becoming a better player with the weight of leadership on his shoulders, so there would be no reason for Coetzee to change things further in Whiteley’s absence.
However, Etzebeth needs to excel rather than coast in his role as captain, and a few more composed but controlled aggressive showings in hostile territories will indeed vindicate the choice of making the fiery lock captain.