‘Eben’s a physical animal’

Eben Etzebeth has an opportunity against the British & Irish Lions to add to his Bok legacy, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Beast Mtawarira remembers every one of his 117 Tests for South Africa. According to the decorated prop, none was as brutal or intense as the second match against the British & Irish Lions in 2009.

‘In some ways, the Lions are tougher than the All Blacks,’ Mtawarira tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘That second Test at Loftus Versfeld was probably the most physical battle of my entire career.

‘Nothing compared to it, before or after. It’s the kind of contest where you need players with the physical and mental capacity to stand up.’

Back in 2009, the Boks had the likes of Bakkies Botha serving as the team’s enforcer. This time, Eben Etzebeth will fulfil the role of physical talisman.

The lock has nothing left to prove. Having made his debut at the age of 20, Etzebeth has racked up nearly 90 caps in the space of 10 years. He’s often led the physical charge and has contributed to many famous wins – the 2019 World Cup title victory chief among them.

In the coming months, Etzebeth will have the opportunity to add to his already impressive legacy. A unique battle against the Lions in South Africa will bring out the best in him.

Few understand Etzebeth better than his good mate Mtawarira and former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. Back in 2012, Meyer backed the relatively unknown lock to start in what was destined to be a bruising clash against England in Durban. The game was Meyer’s first as Bok coach, and he was under pressure to win.

‘I was looking for individuals who were talented, mentally tough and had a strong work ethic. Eben ticked all of those boxes from the outset,’ Meyer says.

‘Eben was hard to ignore at that stage, as he was bigger than most of his peers. Big guys like that often struggle to adapt to professional rugby because they are used to bashing their way through opponents at the junior level. They underestimate what it takes, from a mental point of view, to succeed at the top. Eben was different in the sense that he came into the system with an appetite for hard work and a strong desire to improve.’

By 2012, Mtawarira was four years into his Test career and an established player in the Bok side. When Etzebeth entered the fray, the Zimbabwe-born prop found that he had a lot in common with the giant from Cape Town’s northern suburbs.

‘He was just so determined to make an impact in that first season,’ says Mtawarira. ‘He set the bar really high.

‘I developed a close relationship with him, as he was the guy scrumming directly behind me. That’s a natural thing in rugby, because you want to know that guy behind you has your back. It became a deeper thing as the years progressed and we got to know one another,’ the big man adds. ‘We would make time to get together and speak about our lives. I learned a lot about him.

‘Eben may not show that side of himself to the media, but he’s a person who cares very deeply about his friends, teammates and the team itself. And it’s that attitude that makes him such an asset to the side.’

Meyer points out that Etzebeth, while blessed with natural size and strength, did not go to one of the more established rugby schools in the Western Cape. He was forced to fight for recognition, and received his big shot via the University of Cape of Town and subsequently the Stormers.

When Meyer first met Etzebeth, he was struck by the player’s confidence.

‘He wasn’t scared of anything. He wasn’t intimidated by me as the coach and he wasn’t afraid to go up against a guy like Bakkies Botha in training.

‘His best attribute is that he’s a physical animal. There are certain players in rugby that others dread coming up against. Eben is one of those players. He gets stuck in.’

The media and public often confuse physicality with thuggery. While Etzebeth has always relished the physical side of the game, he has never been dirty and he has never set out to injure someone. For all the hype about him pushing the physical boundaries, Etzebeth has received just two yellow cards in a decade at Test level.

‘It’s important to have that balance as an enforcer,’ says Meyer. ‘On the one hand, the team needs you to get stuck in. On the other, you need him to stay on the park.

‘A lot of opponents tried to provoke him in the early stages of his career. The All Blacks were very good at pushing players in that manner. Eben didn’t take the bait, though.

‘I’ve been proud to see him grow over the past decade. He’s always had that physical presence, but he’s worked hard to add other elements to his game.

‘He became a Springbok captain in 2017 and ultimately an established leader within the national set-up. More recently, I’ve been impressed to see him thriving for Toulon in France, where the rugby is very tough.’

Mtawarira agrees that Etzebeth is not one to waste his energy on off-the-ball punch-ups.

‘He’s always found a way to channel that aggression. I know some people feel intimidated when they see the tall guy with the massive biceps. He’s not all about the look, though, he puts all of that into action. That aggression is channelled directly into the set-pieces, the rucks, the collisions.

‘And he’s not the kind of guy who will go looking for praise afterwards either. All he wants to do is to get the job done.’

Mtawarira has had a few conversations with Etzebeth about the 2021 Lions tour. Etzebeth is adamant that Mtawarira – who retired after the 2019 World Cup – still has something to offer, and has pleaded with the prop to join the Boks in one more almighty battle against the composite side from the north.

‘Eben loves the idea of us all going into battle together,’ Mtawarira says with a laugh. ‘That’s what he feeds off, the energy. He lives for the team.

‘I walked a long road with him. I came to understand that he’s the kind of guy who draws inspiration from his friends and teammates. He believes that they make him stronger.

‘He goes out of his way to form those bonds off the field. He puts in the time, and down the line there is a deeper connection. And when the going gets tough on the field, that connection matters a great deal.’

The Lions have spoken at length about countering the South Africans’ physicality on this tour. While they may have a good idea about what to expect, it remains to be seen if they will cope with the challenge.

Meyer paraphrases the line used by former boxer Mike Tyson regarding planning and execution.

‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. In this instance, the physicality is the most important thing. A rugby team can’t implement any kind of plan when they are being hammered at the set pieces and getting smashed behind the gainline.

‘Eben is a crucial piece in that puzzle. The team will be looking to him to set the tone. And when a player like Eben leads the way in this manner, the rest will follow.’

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Craig Lewis