SA Rugby begins ‘internal process’ with Etzebeth

South Africa's Eben Etzebeth is held aloft as he wins a lineout during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game at International Stadium between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama, Japan, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)
South Africa's Eben Etzebeth, center, runs for the ball during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama, Japan, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
New Zealand's George Bridge, left, taps the ball against South Africa's Eben Etzebeth during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game at International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
South Africa's Eben Etzebeth leaves the field during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama, Japan, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2019, file photo, South Africa's Eben Etzebeth leaves the field during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama, Japan. Springboks lock 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.(AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama, File)

HAMAMATSU, Japan — The South African rugby union has started a confidential “internal process” with Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth over allegations he physically and racially abused a person in South Africa before the Rugby World Cup.

SA Rugby issued a statement about the process on Thursday, a day after the South African Human Rights Commission announced it would take Etzebeth to an equality court on Friday over the allegations. That’s the same day Etzebeth is due to play for the Springboks in a crucial pool game against Italy at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Etzebeth has denied any assault or racial abuse and SA Rugby didn’t say he would be withdrawn from the squad. The indications are he will stay in Japan and play against Italy at Shizuoka Stadium.

“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 on Thursday.

SA Rugby previously said it backed Etzebeth and believed his story.

No criminal charges have been filed against Etzebeth, but the human rights commission said it was going ahead with a case in the equality court. Equality courts generally operate like civil courts in South Africa. They can order financial settlements, but also hand out fines and community service in some instances.

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 in late August. 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 straight 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 were also 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 deal with cases of racial and also other discrimination. 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 (2.03 meters) tall, has played 81 tests and is one of the most experienced players in the Springboks squad. He’s previously acted as a stand-in captain for the Springboks.

He has 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.

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More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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