Eben Etzebeth never doubted he would fight his way back from a serious shoulder injury, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Eben Etzebeth sits down and rests two arms the size of ship anchors on the table. His biceps threaten to burst through the sleeves of his tight-fitting golf shirt. At this stage, it’s impossible to tell which arm, left or right, was affected by the shoulder ailment that sidelined the giant lock for eight frustrating months.
Etzebeth taps his left arm for confirmation. It’s hard to believe the same limb was nearly half the size, in terms of muscle tone, at the beginning of 2018, and that there were whispers in the corridors of the Stormers HQ suggesting that Etzebeth would never play Test rugby again.
Perhaps that’s why Etzebeth can’t stop smiling. He’s come through a process that has tested him, mentally and physically, like nothing before. He reveals that his personal struggle for fitness coincided with his father Harry’s battle with cancer. ‘That put things into perspective,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.
Etzebeth’s change in mood was first evident in the buildup to the Test against Argentina in Durban. He promised local reporters an explosive return to the game – and certainly made good on his word in the Springboks’ 34-21 win at Kings Park. He cracked jokes at the same press conference, and appeared to be in a much better space than the stern individual who fronted the media, as Bok captain, for much of the 2017 Test season.
His smile disappears, though, as he speaks about his injury and time on the sidelines. The story begins with the Test in Cardiff last December. Shortly before half-time, Etzebeth was tackled around the neck and brought to ground awkwardly.
As the team headed into the change room, Etzebeth sought out the team doctor. He wanted to play on, but found that he could no longer lift his arm. He watched from the bench in the second half as the Boks went down 24-22. While he was disappointed by the setback, he believed that his body would heal in a matter of weeks.
Two weeks passed. Then three. The situation didn’t change, though, as Etzebeth still couldn’t lift his arm.
‘It was just hanging there,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t even pick up a coffee cup. I usually head to Langebaan when we have a break in December, but plans changed once I realised I wouldn’t be able to put my jetski on the water. My back was also giving me problems at that stage, so the coaches told me to take a few more weeks off and report back in mid-January for an assessment.’
A specialist gave Etzebeth some bad news. At best, he would be back in action in four to six months. The worst-case scenario, however, would see his body take 18 months to heal and compromise the player’s chances of featuring at the 2019 World Cup.
‘It was slow going in terms of recovery,’ he says. ‘Suddenly, the Stormers were five games into the Super Rugby competition, and I wasn’t feeling that much stronger. The June Tests rolled round, and I still wasn’t ready.
‘Those were lonely times, those hours I spent trying to rehabilitate. I kept an eye on the rugby, and that made it even harder. When it went well for the team, I wanted to be there. When it didn’t go well, I wanted to be there, too, as I felt that maybe I could make a difference.’
Some felt Etzebeth should have been given more time to recover, given the nature of the ailment as well as his lack of game time before the Rugby Championship. Etzebeth believed he was ready to face Argentina in Durban, though, and for the first time in 2018, the medical experts agreed.
‘I was determined to play against England in June. I was upping the ante at every training session, and hitting guys harder than I should have,’ he says, with a dark chuckle. ‘I wasn’t cleared, though, and that was frustrating.
‘After the June Tests, the doctors and physios still didn’t think I was ready. Bok coach Rassie Erasmus brought me in with the first batch of players for the training camp in Stellenbosch. I went in with the mindset of “I have to convince them that I’m ready for the Rugby Championship”. I told myself that I couldn’t spend another Saturday sitting at home while my mates were singing the national anthem and playing for our country. It’s an emotional thing, you know. If you’re part of a system for a few years, and all of a sudden it’s taken away from you … it’s a terrible feeling.
Etzebeth depended on the support of his family and friends during that period of recovery. The hard work eventually paid off, as he was selected for the squad to face Argentina. Etzebeth threw a party at his house a few days before the players and coaches convened in Durban.
‘I suppose it was a way of saying thank you to everyone and acknowledging that I was finally back with the Boks.’
Etzebeth’s determination was patent in the days leading up to his comeback. After missing a few catches during a restart exercise, he stormed off the training field and took a few moments to compose himself. A couple of teammates attempted to console him. It was clear how much the opportunity meant to him, and how he intended to make it count.
‘Perhaps the rugby world has forgotten about me,’ Etzebeth told journalists later that week.
One reporter cited his lack of game time and asked the lock if his body was ready for Test rugby. Without missing a beat, Etzebeth said that he would answer the question in the match against Argentina at Kings Park.
‘The world will see if I’m ready or not this Saturday.’
At the team announcement, Erasmus highlighted the lock’s value as a player and leader. Last year, Etzebeth led the Boks in 11 of their 13 Tests after the official captain, Warren Whiteley, broke down with a serious injury. It was a difficult period, with the Boks sustaining several embarrassing losses, but one Etzebeth will never forget.
‘Sometimes I will hear or read the words “when Etzebeth was Springbok captain …” and it gives me a good feeling,’ he says. ‘I watched John Smit lift the World Cup in 2007. Francois Pienaar did it before in 1995. Those were two great captains, and it’s amazing to think that I’m part of that legacy. Myself, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi are all good mates, and we are the 59th, 60th and 61st captains of South Africa. That is also something special.’
The Test against Argentina witnessed a reunion when Etzebeth lined up with Kolisi, the official captain for the 2018 season, and his other teammates. One thing Etzebeth does regret is missing the chance to run out of the tunnel with Kolisi when the latter led the Boks for the first time in June.
‘It gives me a boost when I look across and see Siya singing the national anthem,’ he says. ‘I was so proud of him when I saw him leading the team against England at Ellis Park. It’s even better now that I’m here with the team and can offer him my backing on and off the field.
‘We’re professional sportsmen and it’s our duty to do our best every week. That said, playing alongside your mates can give you an extra edge. I’ve known Siya for a long time, and my friendship with a guy like Beast Mtawarira has really grown over the past few years. Lood de Jager, Handré Pollard, Damian de Allende, Pieter-Steph, Franco Mostert … the list goes on. They have your back off the field, and so when the time for battle arrives, you know they will have your back on it.’
So how does he feel about resuming his role as team enforcer? There’s a fine line between lending the team a physical edge and conceding penalties and yellow cards. Etzebeth has gone out of his way on several occasions, though, to remind reporters how few cards he’s conceded over the course of his seven-year career.
‘Reporters and fans will always have their perceptions,’ he says. ‘At the end of the day, the opinion of my teammates matters most to me. If I can look Siya, Beast, and every other guy in the eye after the game and tell them that I did my best, that’s enough for me. Having their respect is important. Your family and friends will always support you, but if your teammates respect you, that is something truly special. That is something that we have a lot of in this team at present. We mustn’t lose that.’
The Boks lost eight of their 12 Tests in 2016, and the results and performances across the 2017 season did little to challenge the perception that the South African side had lost its physical aura. While the Boks made a physical statement in the first two Tests against England this June, and again in the game against Argentina in Durban, they were manhandled by the Pumas in Mendoza.
‘Regaining that reputation … it’s a work in progress,’ says Etzebeth. ‘We’re not yet where we want to be. It’s been a big talking point within the team over the past few months.
‘Rugby is a funny sport. You can take 57 points against the All Blacks in New Zealand, and three weeks later, you can lose to the same team by a single point. There’s a lesson in that. That shows you that on any given day, if you are up for it, you can beat any team in the world. You have to be physically and mentally ready for every single game.’
Etzebeth feels that his recent experiences off the field will serve him well in the months to come. The Boks have a lot of work to do – as seen by the poor performance in Mendoza – before they travel to Japan for the global tournament next September.
‘The doctors and physios seemed surprised by how relaxed I was during my rehabilitation,’ he says. ‘I told them that I knew I would be back, and that I was going to work my arse off to make sure of it. What do I mean by back? Back in any shape or form as a rugby player. For me, it would have been enough to play again for a club team. I fell in love with the game at the age of six, and I haven’t lost that passion.
‘You learn a lot about yourself when you suffer that kind of injury,’ he continues. ‘There were days where the fitness coach drilled me and days when I was in the gym by myself. It was down to me and me alone to make things happen. You have two choices in that scenario: fight for what you want, or give up.
‘I also learned that there is more to life. My dad had been struggling with cancer, and that made my injury seem like nothing in comparison. I’m happy to report that he came out of that battle on top. Maybe it shows you that, whatever your situation, somewhere someone else is fighting a bigger battle. If you work hard and keep the faith, you will get what you want. I feel I did that when I was selected to play for the Boks again.’
Etzebeth wants to help the side restore its fearsome physical reputation and climb the World Rugby rankings in the coming months. He speaks about the World Cup as if he has unfinished business.
‘I was the last guy out of the change room after we lost to the All Blacks in our 2015 World Cup semi-final,’ he says. ‘It was one of the worst days of my life. I was already thinking about the 2019 World Cup at that stage. I can’t tell you how badly I want to win that tournament. The Webb Ellis Cup is the greatest prize in rugby. If you’re playing for the Boks and you don’t want to win the World Cup, you’re in the wrong job.
‘I’m not taking anything for granted, though. That’s what this experience has taught me. Hopefully I will stay fit and make that World Cup squad, which won’t be easy given all the options at lock. I won’t stop working. I want to give Rassie a good reason to pick me, and I truly believe that, with everyone pulling in the right direction, the Boks can win the World Cup.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.