Eben Etzebeth’s early-season form for the Stormers bodes well for the Boks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
As fate would have it, Eben Etzebeth and Allister Coetzee shared a flight back to South Africa after their stints in Japan earlier this year. For Etzebeth, the flight came at the conclusion of his first season with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes. For Coetzee, it followed his short-lived coaching gig with the Kobelco Steelers, with his homecoming soon becoming permanent when he was confirmed as the new Springbok coach on 12 April.
Memorably, when Coetzee left the Stormers to take up his coaching job in Japan, he did so with a prized possession: Etzebeth’s Springbok jersey. The lock had given the coach his jersey as a token of his appreciation for the role he had played in his career, and during a farewell press conference in Cape Town, an emotional Coetzee said it was gestures such as these that would define his time at the Stormers.
Less than 12 months later, and Coetzee is likely to return the favour by handing Etzebeth the Bok No 4 jersey for the three-Test series against Ireland in June. At the start of the season, Etzebeth once again reaffirmed his status as one of the best locks in world rugby.
In the Stormers’ second-round match against the Cheetahs, he was quite simply at the peak of his powers. According to the Vodacom Stats App, Etzebeth won eight lineouts on the Stormers’ own throw, while stealing three balls. He made two offloads, 12 carries and executed a couple of turnovers. He also completed nine tackles to go with his 13 from round one.
Etzebeth continued to perform as the second-row fulcrum around which much of the Stormers’ forward play revolved during the opening month of Super Rugby. Then injury struck. During a lineout drill on the Monday after the Stormers had enjoyed a bye at the beginning of April, Etzebeth pulled up with a calf strain that condemned the towering lock to six weeks on the sidelines.
‘It felt like someone had hit a golf ball against my calf,’ Etzebeth says when SA Rugby magazine catches up with him towards the end of his rehabilitation period. ‘It was actually the same sort of injury I suffered just before the World Cup last year, so I knew straight away what had happened.’
Etzebeth admits the injury came at an unfortunate time after he had enjoyed a run of consistent starts for the Cape side, but he says it also made him even hungrier to make an impact upon his return.
‘As a young guy you want to get stuck in and play every week, but sometimes it’s good to get a bit of a break. By the end of the year, often there’s been a lot of rugby played and then you need a break, so I can’t take having a bit of rest for granted. Having said that, hopefully I can make up for lost time once I’m back to full fitness.’
Although Etzebeth went straight from the 2015 World Cup to join his Japanese club, effectively ruling out a complete off-season for the hard-working lock, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck tells SA Rugby magazine that the 24-year-old returned to Cape Town in top shape.
‘Eben came back from Japan looking really fit and in form, and he brought that into our campaign. At the start of the season he produced some of the best rugby I’ve seen him play for the Stormers, and it was great to see him performing consistently over a number of weeks. For me, he again proved he’s the best No 4 in the country, if not world rugby.’
At the halfway mark of the conference stage in Super Rugby, it was revealing that he was still ranked No 1 in terms of lineouts stolen (nine) despite having featured in just five matches. Fleck says it is clear to see that Etzebeth has developed the all-round attributes to add multi-faceted value all across the park.
‘We’ve always known Eben can hit rucks, but defensively he’s been brilliant and was top of the ladder in terms of making 65 tackles for us without missing one [before suffering his injury]. His ball-carrying has also improved. He’s not so predictable any more and he’s brought in some subtlety, with some evasion skills and tip-on passes, which make him that much harder to defend against. He’s always been good at contesting at the lineouts, but I think the aggressive plan we have at the Stormers suits his game, and he’s applied heaps of pressure at that set piece.’
There can be no denying that the arrival of Pieter-Steph du Toit at the Stormers has also helped bring out the best in Etzebeth. In the first four games of Super Rugby, the two close friends played a combined 546 minutes, made 82 tackles, 72 carries, 30 passes and beat five defenders. The duo also reigned supreme at the lineouts, securing their own throw 43 times and making the most steals for a second-row pairing (10).
‘Eben and Pieter-Steph really complement each other,’ Fleck says. ‘They’re both aggressive and hard-working players. Pieter-Steph does a lot of the dirty work for a No 5 lock, and I think that frees up Eben for a lot of carries. So I have no doubt they’re going to be a great combination for the Stormers and the Boks.’
Du Toit joined the Stormers from the Sharks towards the end of last year, and Etzebeth admits he went from pal to persuader when he heard the move was on the table.
‘Pieter-Steph is a really good mate of mine, so after I heard he was thinking of coming to Cape Town, I used to phone him once a week to try to get him here,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I think he’s enjoying it, and he’s playing some really good rugby, so it’s great to have him here.’
Injury permitting, it’s a combination that could well be unleashed at some point on the Irish in June. Current SA Player of the Year Lood de Jager may well boast first rights to the No 5 jersey, but Du Toit will provide stiff competition for that position.
Etzebeth, though, has firmly established himself as the first-choice Springbok No 4 since making his debut in 2012. Such has been his impact in the green and gold that he started this year with more Springbok caps (44) than he did Super Rugby and Currie Cup caps combined (39).
Fleck suggests there’s no doubt another big international season lies ahead for Etzebeth if he is able to replicate anything like his early-season form.
‘Eben is the ultimate professional; he’s willing to absorb knowledge and share it. He likes the technical and tactical side of the game even though he is a brute on the field. He’s a smart guy and I’m sure he’ll work really well with the coaches at the Springboks, and undoubtedly Allister.’
Etzebeth says he is looking forward to playing under Coetzee once again, the prospect of which became apparent on their flight to South Africa.
‘I was obviously disappointed when he left the Stormers, and although I didn’t expect him back [in South African rugby] so soon, we were both on the same plane when we returned from Japan. I knew then there was a possibility he could become Bok coach, and while I’m sad Heyneke [Meyer] has left, Allister steps in, and he’s someone I really respect. He’s the type of coach who knows what he wants. One of his greatest strengths is the way he treats people and players off the field. I’m certain he will do a good job at the helm of Springbok rugby and take the team forward.’
ETZEBETH ON …
HIS TIME IN JAPAN
‘It was an enjoyable experience. There are so many things that are different, but I’d love to go back if I get the chance. The rugby is also different, and it’s something that took some getting used to, but it was beneficial for me.’
ADDING TO HIS ALL-ROUND GAME
‘I’ve tried to adapt to what the coaches want and expect of me. I’m not looking to change too much, but just add bits and pieces here and there where required, while maintaining what’s been working.’
WORKING WITH STORMERS COACH ROBBIE FLECK
‘When I first heard Robbie was going to be the new coach, I was excited. He’s a really good coach, and the way he works with the players and his calmness under pressure is beneficial. I like the way he thinks about the game, and I’ve enjoyed working with him.’
THE STORMERS’ LINEOUT SUCCESS
‘It’s built on a team effort; the hookers and lifters all deserve credit. It’s something we’ve worked hard on with new forwards coach Russell Winter, so it’s been great to see that paying off.’
THE STORMERS’ SECOND-ROW TALENT
‘JD [Schickerling] is a great talent coming through as a No 5 lock; he’s athletic and brilliant at the lineouts. I think he will become a really great player. Rynhardt [Elstadt] is also a physical player who can play at flank or lock. Then Jan [de Klerk] unfortunately got injured, but he is another youngster with lots of talent.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine