Case against Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth going to court

HAMAMATSU, Japan (AP) — Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth could be forced to return home midway through the Rugby World Cup in Japan after the South African Human Rights Commission said it was taking him to court over a case of alleged physical and racial abuse.

The commission said Wednesday it would “institute legal proceedings” against Etzebeth at an equality court on Friday. He was accused of assaulting and racially abusing a person in South Africa in August.

The court proceedings are due to start the same day that Etzebeth, a key member of the South African team, is due to play against Italy in a crucial World Cup pool game in Shizuoka.

It’s unclear if the court will require that Etzebeth return home to take part in proceedings. A South Africa team spokesman in Japan didn’t immediately reply to messages asking for clarification.

Etzebeth was accused of racially abusing a person while on a night out during a vacation in the South African coastal town of Langebaan, near Cape Town. He was also accused of assault the same night. He denied both allegations and said he had witnesses who could corroborate his story.

The late-night incidents are alleged to have happened the day before South Africa’s World Cup squad was announced.

Etzebeth was reportedly out at a bar with friends and family members when the incidents are alleged to have taken place.

Etzebeth said in a statement after the allegations surfaced that it was “completely untrue and unfounded to claim that I physically or racially abused anyone … multiple witnesses can corroborate that.”

SA Rugby promised to cooperate with authorities and said it would take a hard-line approach if Etzebeth was found to be guilty. But it also backed Etzebeth after his denials, saying we “trust our people to act responsibly.”

At the time, Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said he met with Etzebeth and believed his story, and Etzebeth was included in the World Cup squad.

“I was definitely worried about it when I first heard about it,” Erasmus said. “If there was any truth to it that would have been a massive issue for us. But after chatting to Eben and hearing his side of the story, there is trust between a coach and player.

“I have to trust him to do some stuff on the field and win test matches and he must trust me to believe him when he tells me something.”

Etzebeth also met with the human rights commission, the HRC, before flying to Japan with the Springboks squad. The allegations are also being investigated by criminal prosecutors.

“As good and law-abiding corporate citizens, SA Rugby have given our full co-operation in the Eben Etzebeth investigation and will continue to do so,” SA Rugby said last month. “The case is in the hands of (prosecutors) and the HRC. We trust and believe they will investigate it thoroughly. Once their findings are known, we will adhere to whatever is decided.”

The human rights commission and equality courts were set up in the wake of South Africa’s apartheid past and deal with cases of racial and also other discrimination. The courts generally operate like civil courts. The unnamed person accusing Etzebeth made a complaint to the human rights commission, the commission said.

The 27-year-old Etzebeth, who is 6-foot-8 tall, has played 81 tests and is one of the most experienced players in the Springboks squad. He’s played a part in both South Africa’s games at the World Cup so far, starting in the loss to defending champion New Zealand and coming off the bench in a big win against Namibia on Saturday.

He was named to start the game against Italy on Friday, when South Africa effectively needs to win to stay in contention at the World Cup.