The Eben Etzebeth saga, as well as the social-media reaction to the ‘bomb-squad’ celebration, are distractions that the Springboks could do without, writes JON CARDINELLI in Kobe.
‘This is a big story,’ a French journalist stated for effect as a group of us made our way to the Bok captain’s press conference at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa.
There was a buzz around the preceding captain’s run when Etzebeth led the team out of the tunnel and proceeded to warm up alongside skipper Siya Kolisi. Everybody on the sideline was engaged in conversations about the case against Etzebeth and whether the lock may have to leave the World Cup tournament.
Kolisi fielded questions about whether the case was a distraction for the team ahead of their must-win game against Italy. He was asked whether Etzebeth himself was in a bad space.
I’ve been observing the players and coaches closely over the past three weeks. This is a determined group that appears to be in a positive frame of mind both on and off the pitch. Rassie Erasmus and the players have often spoken about this team as a tight-knit unit.
A few jokes were made about the team’s base in Omaezaki last week and how it resembled the Overlook Hotel from ‘The Shining’. The six days spent in the quiet coastal town, however, provided the players with an extensive opportunity to bond and prepare for the challenges to come.
That said, the storm around the Etzebeth case is not going to clear until the matter is resolved. It’s only going to grow when the team progresses to the playoffs and more and more people want to know why the case against the Bok lock is still up in the air.
Kolisi and Erasmus have told us that the case is not a distraction. They are backing Etzebeth and are assuming that he is innocent until any evidence proves otherwise.
The conversation will continue to rage at the water coolers and on social media platforms back home, though. More and more foreign journalists are popping up at South African press conferences and are asking for clarification about the case. It’s a situation that’s going to test Erasmus in the next few weeks and at some point the team may be adversely affected.
The players follow what’s happening back home on social media. We saw what happened on Saturday when someone posted a video showing a group of white Bok players celebrating after a try against Italy. It was suggested that the group was deliberately excluding Makazole Mapimpi.
The Bok winger has since posted a video of his own to set the record straight. On Sunday in Kobe, Erasmus expressed his disappointment with the initial video and went out of his way to explain what the ‘bomb-squad’ is and why Mapimpi – who started the game at No 11 – wasn’t part of the celebration.
If a non-event like that – cooked up by mischief-makers bent on dividing the nation along racial lines – can hurt the players and prompt such a response from Mapimpi and Erasmus, one has to wonder how they feel about all that has been said about Etzebeth over the past six weeks.
It’s believed that the Etzebeth case may only be resolved after the World Cup. This means that the Boks – or at the very least Erasmus and the management team – will have to cope with this distraction for the remainder of their campaign.
The Boks will have plenty to worry about in the lead-up to a probable playoff against Japan. They don’t need distractions such as these at this point of the tournament.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets