Eben Etzebeth’s challenge is to perform the role of Springbok enforcer while maintaining his discipline, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When former Stormers coach Allister Coetzee left South African shores to take up a coaching job in Japan, he did so with a prized possession – Eben Etzebeth’s Springbok jersey.
It was Etzebeth’s way of thanking Coetzee for the role he had played in his career, and during a farewell press conference in Cape Town, the emotional coach said it was gestures such as that which would define his time at the Stormers.
The gesture also served to show a softer and more sentimental side to the Stormers and Springbok strongman, who is better known for his aggression and unyielding physicality on the field of play.
After a dominant debut Super Rugby season in 2012, Etzebeth went on to feature in all but one of the Boks’ 12 Tests that year, with the ferocious second rower quickly and quite literally making his presence felt at a mere 20 years of age.
Some three years later and already with 37 Test caps to his name at the time SA Rugby magazine caught up with the big man on the eve of the Springboks’ World Cup squad announcement, he reflected on what it had taken to get to this point.
‘Allister is a very special person and coach. He believed in me from a young age and if it wasn’t for him having given me a chance to play Super Rugby when I was just 20, I definitely wouldn’t have got to where I am today. So giving him my Bok jersey was just a sign of gratitude for the significant role he played in my career.’
Etzebeth has embraced and flourished in his role as the Springboks’ and Stormers’ enforcer ever since bursting on to the senior scene in 2012. But he has also evolved as a player since then, increasingly offering more than just brute force.
According to the Vodacom Rugby app, during this year’s Super Rugby season, Etzebeth ranked second in terms of lineouts stolen (nine), made 78 carries, completed four turnovers and successfully executed five offloads. In the Rugby Championship, over 221 minutes of game time, he won eight lineouts on the Boks’ own throw, completed 32 tackles (missing just a solitary one) and made 19 carries.
Etzebeth’s all-round abilities can be traced back to his high school days, where he played in the backline up until Grade 11, when he finally made the switch to the second row as he began to fill out his formidable physical frame at over 2m tall. And with the athleticism and aerial skills to be more than just a bruiser, there have been plans in place for Etzebeth to evolve into the sort of versatile second rower who is also comfortable at No 5.
However, that’s a story for another day, with Etzebeth set to be tasked with the traditional role as the No 4 enforcer at the World Cup.
‘I’m looking to improve in every area I can as a lock, but for now I just want to focus on my job at No 4 and the responsibilities that come with that role,’ he says. ‘Every game is different and something new is expected from you as a player. But I’m fortunate, I have a very good relationship with Heyneke [Meyer], who has always given me the freedom to play my natural game, but obviously within the game plan and the laws.’
Taking a moment to touch on that last point, the question is tentatively put to Etzebeth regarding the challenges related to taking on the role as physical enforcer, while ensuring the red mist doesn’t get the better of him.
‘That on-field role and experience is something very different to what you experience outside rugby,’ Etzebeth muses. ‘When I go on to the field, that mental switch is required to be able to enforce the physicality on the game. But there’s also a fine line between being able to do that and ensuring discipline is maintained, particularly if the opposition is looking for a reaction out of you.’
The one man who was perhaps most well known for walking that fine line, and not always successfully, is former Bok hardman Bakkies Botha, who once famously reminded a referee during a Test that he just loved to ‘live on the edge’.
Understandably, the comparisons between Botha and Etzebeth have been made ever since the arrival of the Boks’ obvious successor at No 4. And yet while Etzebeth remains a world-class athlete in his own right, and might have grown tired of such comparisons, it’s clear he holds Botha in the highest esteem.
‘Bakkies is someone I obviously always looked up to when I was coming through the ranks. It was a very special experience to be able to spend some time with him in the Bok set-up. I’ve learned so much from him off the field. He’s a very special person, and sometimes I found myself hanging around longer just to be able to listen and learn from him.’
When Botha announced his retirement at the end of last year, he said it was a decision he was at peace with after seeing the quality of young locks in the next Springbok generation.
Etzebeth remains at the forefront of this generation, and it’s undoubtedly why his Bok No 4 jersey is sure to remain a treasured possession for a coach such as Coetzee, who played no small part in the Etzebeth evolution.
ETZEBETH ON …
THE WORLD CUP
‘As a Springbok team, we’ve obviously been building to this World Cup for a long time; it’s a massive motivation. There is real determination and desire in this squad, and we just want to give it our all.’
PLAYING WITH VETERAN VICTOR MATFIELD
‘When you’re playing alongside a guy with over 120 Tests, it’s impossible not to learn a lot. Victor is a legend of the game, and his calmness, particularly at the lineouts, is something that rubs off on those around him. It’s a very special experience to play with him.’
NEW STORMERS SIGNING PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT
‘Pieter-Steph is such a talented player, who can play at No 4, 5 or 7. I think him coming to the Stormers is going to be very good for the team. I’ve enjoyed my time playing and working with him at the Boks, and he’s a good friend of mine.’
HIS POST-WORLD CUP STINT WITH THE NTT DOCOMO RED HURRICANES
‘The move to Japan is something I’m really looking forward to. It will be great to experience a new culture and have a new experience in Japan. I’ll be playing with a couple of South African teammates in the side there, so I’m looking forward to that new challenge.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine