Dan Carter did it, Riche MicCaw did it, even Bismarck du Plessis did it, so why can’t Eben Etzebeth make like and educated flea and return to the game via club rugby asks Tank Lanning in his Sport24 column.
Eben Etzebeth should be making his return to rugby against Belhar on the Ikey Tiger’s Green Mile at 16h00 this Saturday afternoon.
In fact, most of the Western Province, Cheetahs, Lions and Bulls players should be playing for their respective clubs this weekend, and should probably have done the same last weekend.
But especially Etzebeth, who is returning from a monstrous layoff induced by ankle and toe injuries. Instead, though, it looks like he will not even get a game for WP against the Kings next weekend before being thrust straight back into the Bok fray.
On a weekend that sees the Aussies and Kiwis fighting for the Super Rugby silverware, and the Currie Cup yet to start, just imagine the excitement and interest that the selection of Etzebeth and a few of his WP team mates would create around a humble UCT vs Belhar fixture?
It would be sensational for club rugby, to my mind still the backbone of the sport. And given how tight it is at the top of the Super A League in the Cape, with all of Hammies, False Bay, Ikeys, and Maties still in the running for top spot on the log with 5 games remaining, it seems a brilliant opportunity to focus the spotlight on the amateur arm of the game.
The Kiwis did exactly this when stalwarts Dan Carter and Richie McCaw returned from their respective sabbaticals. Earlier this year Carter played for his boyhood club Southbridge, and according to ESPN, not even a thick fog could deter more than 2000 people turning out to watch their favourite son play a major role in a 51-10 win over North Canterbury club Glenmark. In 2013 Richie McCaw ended a seven-month break from the game in a club fixture between Christchurch and University that would normally have attracted a few hundred hardy spectators. But ESPN suggest that thousands of fans pitched up as word got out that one of the country’s highest-paid professional sportsmen would be playing.
And in Durban, Jake White has annoyed President Graham Mackenzie by insisting that the Sharks players be spread evenly across the clubs, and play more regularly for them. This after Bismarck du Plessis returned to rugby after a serious knee injury last year by playing a 3 games of club rugby, all for different clubs.
Yes, there are exceptional medical protocols in place that guide coaches as to when players are ready to be brought back – Kenyan Sevens coach Paul Treu (who is a very worthwhile follow on Twitter) explained them to me after I questioned players being brought back directly into top flight rugby, but that aside, and apart from being brilliant for those fans that cannot get to the big stadia for the big matches, does a return to the game via club rugby not just make sense?
In an appalling Super Rugby year for us South Africans, most of our players took a break for the Bok Tests in June, came back for 2 Super Rugby games, and have been on another long break since. WP tighthead prop Pat Cilliers, who had a shorter break than most in June given that he got a few minutes for the World XV, tells me it was like starting season again.
And before the “Player management” Nazis jump down my throat, let’s take heed of both Prof Tim Noakes and Ross Tucker’s science which suggests that it is not about breaks during season, but about a total break from game of at least 8 weeks between seasons that players need. Also, playing a club game at this stage of the season will be no tougher than a training session.
Unions need to think more about the fans and structures that generate their players, and to my mind getting the players to play for their clubs would do a whole lot more than a midweek “Outreach programme” practice in Langa. Club rugby builds and services diverse communities, but every community has at least one common goal, a love for rugby. Is it not worth giving this arm a little more love?
We are talking about a union that schedules it’s club games to be played at the same time that the Stormers play, though, and a union that held a Stormers practice and launch of their supporters club on a wine farm in Stellenbosch at the same time that Maties were playing Ikeys in a Varsity Cup match at the Danie Craven stadium in the same town!