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'He's a kid, Eben, a kid in the body of a colossus'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

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Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre has explained his January criticism of Springboks talisman Eben Etzebeth as “a handicap” for the French club. At the time, they were fears the downward spiral in form could see them relegated to the Pro D2 but they have since turned their season around and are now set to make the end-of-season top-flight title playoffs as well as contest next weekend’s Challenge Cup final versus Lyon in Marseille.  

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Speaking to Var-Matin four months ago,  Lemaitre took issue with Etzebeth being expensive and often unavailable through injury and international commitments. “There is a double problem in recruiting: the salary cap and the JIFFs [French-eligible players],” he said at the time.

“You can’t do just anything, so I pay special attention to the situation of internationals because they can be an opportunity or a handicap. In this case, players like Eben Etzebeth and Facundo Isa are a clear handicap for the club.”

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Eben Etzebeth | Rugby Roots
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Eben Etzebeth | Rugby Roots

This criticism was followed by old club favourite Bakkies Botha calling out Etzebeth on Twitter. Having since announced that he will join the Sharks in Durban next season rather than see out his contract in Toulon, Etzebeth has returned to the team and his ten appearances have been a massive reason why the fortunes of a club that struggled miserably over the winter have hugely improved. 

Asked in the latest edition of Midi Olympique for his verdict on the Toulon revival, Lemaitre said: “It’s a magic trick… No, more seriously, there are a lot of objective factors in this return to the fore. Eben Etzebeth took over in February, Charles Ollivon and Baptiste Serin also. 

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“I won’t teach you anything by telling you that they are very important in the squad. The end of the Six Nations tournament also allowed us to recover Jean-Baptiste Gros and Gabin Villiere and behind that, Franck Azema was able to restore the players’ confidence,” explained the Toulon president, who then reflected on his criticism of Etzebeth. 

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“In reality, there was above all a misunderstanding when I indicated that the situation of Eben Etzebeth or Facundo Isa was a handicap for clubs like ours because these guys play five months out of twelve. I was talking about their situation, not about the quality of the men.

“We will be very careful,” he added about recruiting South Africans and Argentines in the future. “If we recruit them, they will be very high-level players with a winning mindset. This state of mind, Eben Etzebeth has it. He can’t stand being dominated and, in fact, showed it to Maro Itoje the other day.”

Was Lemaitre surprised by Botha’s stinging Etzebeth comments? “No. It was Bakkies, that’s all. He has his pride as a great Springbok and a former Toulon player. He would like his spiritual son – I put quotation marks to ‘spiritual son’ because they are not there in terms of affinities – to look like him and this is not the case because he is not the same gender of man.

“Eben, to our great disappointment, decided to terminate his contract (he had two years left at the RCT) because he is in love, his wife works in the southern hemisphere and he wants to found a family.

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“He’s a kid, Eben, a kid in the body of a colossus. I saw how unfortunate he was, during the Christmas holidays, for example, to be so far from his family. He’s a kid, including on the physical level, where the slightest ailment… Botha didn’t care about himself. Eben is more sensitive.”

The excellent current form of Etzebeth was commented on by Toulon assistant coach James Coughlan in a recent RugbyPass interview. “The big names shout off the team sheet, guys like Eben, he has been amazing since he has come back from his concussion.

He is getting better every week with the more games he has played. When you are standing from the outside watching him play for South Africa, you see the intensity he brings and everything but here every week he is driving standards in the group.”

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