Kolisi: Springboks maintain focus amid Etzebeth legal issue

The Springboks have maintained their focus on a crucial Rugby World Cup game against Italy, captain Siya Kolisi said Thursday, amid an internal investigation into allegations that teammate Eben Etzebeth physically and racially abused someone in a late-night incident in South Africa before the tournament.

Kolisi confirmed that Etzebeth would play against Italy in Shizuoka on Friday, when South Africa effectively needs to win to avoid crashing out in the group stage for the first time at a World Cup.

“For us, we are just here to play and I know that Eben is playing (against Italy),” Kolisi said. “We haven’t had any distractions this week.”

Etzebeth, who trained with the team as expected at Shizuoka Stadium, denied any wrongdoing when the allegations came to light. He hadn’t been affected by the issue in Japan, Kolisi said.

“Not from what I’m seeing. We’ve been just preparing for the game,” Kolisi said. “That’s all we’ve been talking about. It’s a very important game for us this week. Every game for us from now on is a playoff game. If we slip up, we’re out of the competition so that’s what we’ve been focusing on.”

The allegations against Etzebeth first surfaced in late August. Etzebeth was accused of assaulting and racially abusing a person at a bar while on a night out with friends and family in a coastal town near Cape Town.

The 27-year-old lock, who is 2.03 meters (6-foot-8) tall, denied the allegations and SA Rugby backed him and said they believed him when he said he didn’t do anything wrong. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus also said he believed Etzebeth’s side of the story after meeting with him.

The story re-emerged as an unwelcome distraction for the Springboks in Japan on Wednesday when the South African Human Rights Commission announced it would start legal proceedings against Etzebeth at an equality court on Friday, the same day Etzebeth and South Africa face Italy in the possibly decisive Pool B game.

For now, Etzebeth won’t leave the Rugby World Cup.

“Eben … is part of our squad for the World Cup. He’s going to be playing tomorrow and he’s going to be focusing on the game,” Springboks assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said.

Stick said Etzebeth remained a good team player and was “in a good space.”

An equality court in South Africa generally operates like a civil court. No criminal charges have been filed against Etzebeth.

The internal SA Rugby investigation, which was announced by the organization earlier Thursday and in the hours after the human rights commission’s move, will be carried out in South Africa and shouldn’t affect the squad in Japan. While publicly backing Etzebeth and accepting his explanation, SA Rugby also wants to be sure of exactly what happened.

“Following our discussions with the South African Human Rights Commission we have instituted an internal process to address the matter, the details of which remain an employment matter between SA Rugby and the player,” SA Rugby said.

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