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Sun Apr 20 18:29:49 SAST 2014

Eben becomes the enforcer

Simnikiwe Xabanisa | 13 September, 2012 07:190 Comments

ASKED about the many life lessons one could glean from playing rugby, Morne du Plessis once said: "It teaches you restraint in the face of provocation."

As rugby-related answers go, it is a bit more considered than "We'll take it one game at a time".

But Du Plessis went on to show his true rugger-bugger colours by going against the intellectual grain of that response in flattening the Free State's Kleintjie Grobler.

What with the claim that rugby is a thug's game played by gentlemen, the question of exactly when physicality becomes thuggery has always weighed heavily on would-be hard men.

Former Springbok captain Corné Krige must have been distracted by the very same topic when he mistakenly knocked out teammate Andre Pretorius instead of an Englishman at Twickenham in 2002.

It is a debate that will have entered young Eben Etzebeth's stream of consciousness now that he has been handed a two-week suspension for "head-butting" Australia's Nathan Sharpe.

I put the Glasgow Kiss in inverted commas because, to most self-respecting South Africans, the Stormers lock appeared to have been punished despite not making contact with Sharpe.

It is the first time I have seen a player have the book thrown at him for intent as opposed to execution.

Be that as it may, the biggest positive to come out of the whole thing was that he actually tried to knock Sharpe's block off.

In a country that gave us Bakkies Botha, Adri Geldenhuys, James Dalton and Elandre van den Bergh - who allegedly once broke into a jail to beat up a bloke who owed him money - it is probably not the kind of thing one wants to encourage in the young and impressionable.

But, as someone who owes part of his meteoric rise in domestic rugby to being "the new Bakkies", Etzebeth had not done enough to suggest that he would live up to the original Bakkies' standards.

Forget that he does not use phrases such as "Dankie Hemelse Vader" like Bakkies: Etzebeth simply does not hurt enough people on the field.

Some might point to the collision in which Bismarck du Plessis came off second-best as a sign that the youngster has a bit of enforcer about him.

But enforcing is a game within a game, in which Richie McCaw almost always goes to the blood-bin in games against the Boks but nobody sees punches being thrown.

French flyhalf Fred Michalak once told his Sharks teammates that the French national team had a warning call, directed at whoever was mucking around in a ruck, that Bakkies was approaching to clean him out.

Etzebeth, who has been praised for being aggressive but not dirty, needs to learn that the only way a player earns a reputation as a hard man is if his flirtation with the fine line between physicality and being a thug means crossing it a few times.

If he never smudges the line, the opposition will know that they can play rugby without being molested - a sanitised state of affairs we simply cannot have.

The odd thing about the 20-year-old is that our spies from Cape Town tell us he comes from a long line of Etzebeths who can only be described as rof and onbeskof. So, by being a red-mist-free enforcer, he is actually going against his nature.

A small part of the reason for the Boks being unable to enforce their game plan is that they don't have a recognised enforcer in their pack. There is a vacancy out there for a robust and overgrown laaitie like Etzebeth.

His first suspension should be seen as the moment when he lost his "L" plates as an enforcer.

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Eben becomes the enforcer

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