Eben’s ripped and ready

The big enforcer, Eben Etzebeth, will lead the physical charge when the Springboks go hunting an important win against England at Twickenham, writes JON CARDINELLI.

A study of Eben Etzebeth’s professional career is more a study of collisions than statistics.

During his first season with the Stormers in 2012, the abrasive lock brought the Newlands faithful to their feet when he powered through Bismarck du Plessis, the talisman for the Springboks and the Sharks, in a Super Rugby playoff match.

As the seasons have passed, the young lock has continued to embrace the role of enforcer.

Etzebeth can be found at the centre of any fracas. While there are aspects of his game that have peaked and troughed over a five-year period, that trademark glare and desire to engage have been constant. Etzebeth doesn’t take a backward step for any player. This much was true at the start of his professional career, and is still true over 50 Tests later.

Indeed, it’s rather fitting that Etzebeth’s 50th Test appearance for the Boks was marked by an altercation. In the buildup to the match against Australia in Brisbane, much was made about the 24-year-old reaching the milestone sooner than any South African player in history. In the heat of battle, however, Etzebeth took responsibility as a senior player.

Allan Alaalatoa made a mistake when he decided to throw down a physical challenge late in the second half. The 125kg Wallabies prop attempted to shove his opponent backwards. The formidable 2.04m, 117kg frame of Etzebeth just kept on advancing.

'He looks like Tarzan, and certainly doesn't play like Jane!' observed Australian commentator Rod Kafer, as the two players sized each other up.

The smile on Etzebeth's face was frightening. Players from both sides sensed the impending danger and reacted, although Quade Cooper only succeeded in tearing part of the jersey from Etzebeth's hulk-like body. Juan de Jongh also failed to keep his Stormers and Bok teammate from marching on the not-insignificant figure of Alaalatoa.

‘I'm enjoying myself,’ Etzebeth said later when asked about his 50-Test milestone and his career as a whole. ‘I started playing rugby at six years old. I just enjoy the game. For me, it’s more of a hobby than a profession. Wearing the green and gold jersey is a massive thing for me and for every South African, so that motivates me.’

The Boks went on to lose that Test in Brisbane, 23-17, as well as the subsequent clash in Christchurch, 41-13. Overall, the team has performed poorly in 2016. While Etzebeth has shown that he still has the ability and desire to boss the collisions, the Boks have battled as a collective at the gainline and the breakdown.

Of course, one needs to remember that the Boks were without the ball-carrying and defensive strengths of Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen for the duration of the Rugby Championship.

Coach Allister Coetzee opted not to recall the robust Bismarck du Plessis for the tournament (the hooker later sustained a season-ending injury while on duty for Montpellier in Europe) or a more physical No 12 in Frans Steyn. Willem Alberts, known by his teammates as the ‘Bone Collector’ due to destructive tackling style, was a late and necessary addition to the squad. But for the most part, Etzebeth was tasked with leading the physical charge on his own.

That may change when the Boks travel to Europe to tackle England, Italy, and Wales this November. Burger, who plies his trade at Saracens, is expected to be available for that tour. Vermeulen is set to return from a knee injury. The makeup of the Bok pack should be stronger and meaner, and there will be less pressure on Etzebeth to win the physical battle all on his own.

The first Test of the tour against England at Twickenham promises to be a fight in the trenches. Under coach Eddie Jones, England have rediscovered the strengths that made them a rugby super power in the early-2000s.

This clash is certain to be hyped by an English public and media who enjoy the forward-oriented battles as much as the free-running spectacles. In the United Kingdom and Europe, tight forwards are recognised as superstars in their own right. And make no mistake, there is a healthy appreciation for Etzebeth’s talent and the threat he will pose to England’s forwards.

At the 2015 World Cup, the British press couldn’t get enough of the Bok locks.

‘Lood de Jager is a storm force,’ opined Stephen Jones, the respected writer for the Times of London. ‘The idea that he and the giant Eben Etzebeth could quite easily still be locking in the South African scrum together and moving mountains around the field at the World Cup of 2023 is almost too scary for words.’

If Etzebeth remains fit, he should, as Jones suggests, go on to play in at least two more World Cup tournaments. Heyneke Meyer backed Etzebeth to start when the player was available between 2012 and 2015. Coetzee has continued in this vein in 2016. Like all tight forwards, Etzebeth should improve in the technical aspects of the game as he gets older. While he’s made a big impact in his first 50 Tests, it’s fair to say he should take his game to a new level in the next 50.

While De Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit are viewed as the leading lineout exponents in South Africa, Etzebeth has racked up some impressive numbers over the past season or so. It would appear as if the player once earmarked by former Bok and Stormers lock Andries Bekker as the next big thing at the lineout is starting to realise his potential.

Etzebeth ranked No 1 for lineout steals in the 2016 Super Rugby competition. His timing and anticipation has improved, and evidently this has enhanced his ability to compete on the opposition throw. The Boks will only benefit as Etzebeth, along with Du Toit and De Jager, go hunting for those momentum-shifting steals in the years to come.

The Boks will be counting on Etzebeth to make the big plays at the front of the lineout when they travel to Twickenham on 12 November. They will need the big lock to be at his abrasive best in general play.

The Boks can’t afford to take a backward step. They can’t allow the English pack to get on top. It’s in this sort of clash where a man of Etzebeth’s particular skill set will need to stand up and be counted.

Since making his debut for the Springboks against England on 9 June 2012, Eben Etzebeth has started in 49 of his 52 Tests*. The Bok lock has missed just four Tests during this period – the match against New Zealand in Dunedin in 2012, and the home Tests against Wales (two) and Scotland in early 2014. Etzebeth has had his fair share of injuries, though, and these have limited his game time with the Stormers at Super Rugby level. Between 2012 and 2016, Etzebeth featured in just 42 out of a possible 82 matches.
*Correct as of 1 October

The 32-Springboks who have played 50 or more Tests (age when milestone was reached in brackets)

Eben Etzebeth (24)
Pat Lambie (25)
Frans Steyn (25)
Mark Andrews (26)
Schalk Burger (26)
Jaque Fourie (26)
Bryan Habana (26)
Fourie du Preez (27)
Percy Montgomery (27)
Ruan Pienaar (27)
JP Pietersen (27)
John Smit (27)
Juan Smith (27)
Pierre Spies (27)
CJ van der Linde (27)
Joost van der Westhuizen (27)
Bakkies Botha (28)
Jean de Villiers (28)
Victor Matfield (28)
Beast Mtawarira (28)
Joe van Niekerk (28)
Breyton Paulse (28)
Bismarck du Plessis (29)
Ollie le Roux (29)
Adriaan Strauss (29)
Morné Steyn (29)
André Venter (29)
Jannie du Plessis (30)
Os du Randt (32)
Danie Rossouw (32)
Gurthrö Steenkamp (33)
Albert van den Berg (33)

– This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli