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The Bryan Habana verdict on Toulon row between Botha and Etzebeth

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Bryan Habana has given his verdict on the row earlier this year between Bakkies Botha and Eben Etzebeth, two fellow Springboks legends who had a falling out over the fortunes of Toulon during the early part of the 2021/22 season. The powerhouse French club lived in fear of the drop over the winter but they eventually bucked up their results, finishing eighth in the Top 14 and reaching the final of the European Challenge Cup courtesy of an impressive semi-final win over Saracens.

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Etzebeth finished the campaign with a flourish, shaking off his injury issues to start 13 matches from the middle of February onwards and play 840 minutes, a busy contribution in contrast to the criticism directed at him by Botha when he wasn’t available to play.

Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre had claimed in January that having a player of Etzebeth’s calibre and pay grade injured was in effect a “handicap” for the then Top 14 strugglers, an opinion that Botha weighed in on when interviewed some weeks later by Midi Olympique.

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Bryan Habana, Jonny Hill’s hair pulling and South Africa’s revenge | RugbyPass Offload | Ep 41
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Bryan Habana, Jonny Hill’s hair pulling and South Africa’s revenge | RugbyPass Offload | Ep 41

“Eben Etzebeth? Incredible fighter, best second row in the world. But I regret that he only shows his best face with the Springboks,” claimed Botha shortly after it was confirmed that his fellow South African would be returning home for the 2022/23 URC season.

“In Toulon, he is still a little injured, concussed and in the end, never plays. Obviously, he was not made for France and he will turn his back on the problems the club went through to return to South Africa.

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“It’s disappointing. I love Eben, I repeat, but you can’t say when you arrive in Toulon: ‘I want to be champion of France’ and leave sometime later without having marked the club in one way or another… When you recruit a world-class player, it’s for him to make a difference.”

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The comments annoyed Etzebeth, who tweeted Botha and it required a phone call between the pair to eventually iron things out. “We spoke and all is sorted. No hard feelings after that,” explained Etzebeth to RugbyPass in May. “Bakkies rang me and we spoke. He said it was taken out of context a bit. I also read the article. We solved it and when we see each other in South Africa again we will have a beer.”

Two months on from the Etzebeth revelation that that pair has made their peace, Habana, another South African who knows all about what it takes to play for the big-spending Toulon, gave his take on the bust-up. “Bakkies doesn’t mince his words, he eats his mince, a lot of it,” quipped the retired winger during an appearance on RugbyPass Offload.

“Two world-class players in my opinion. Eben will be the next centurion in two games’ time and is a guy who has given so much to South African rugby. He has been unfortunate in terms of injuries and I got told exactly the same thing. I got called in by Bernard Laporte.

“I wanted to play sevens, tried to make the team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. I get back from the end-of-year tour, had been injured, went to the Springboks and came back and said listen I want to go play sevens. Bernard Laporte said, ‘Then your contract is finished. We will get Julian Savea in. You can go to the sevens but then you don’t have a contract’. ‘Guys, my contract is for another year and a half’.

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“Bakkies’ critique, Bakkies is a good man. Unfortunately, when you say something to the media it gets taken out of context. I’m sure you boys watched the semi-final of the Challenge Cup when Toulon played Saracens and Eben was an absolute monster. He dominated that Sarries pack.

“The president also said that Eben was a handicap to the club. I’m like, ‘Jeepers’. Injuries are part of your career and Eben is a monster, he wears his heart on his sleeve and is one of the biggest bruisers in World Rugby. It would be interesting to see him and Bakkies go toe to toe, Bakkies is a man-mountain of note.

“Bakkies did win three European championships at Toulon, one Top 14 so I understand where he was coming from but it is always tough as a former player when you say something and it gets taken out of context… It’s crap when you hear things like that. Was it valid? It was tough for Eben and when he did play for Toulon he was pretty decent.”

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