Greatness beckons

Stormers and Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth became even better in 2013, writes RYAN VREDE.

Eben Etzebeth is immune to second-season syndrome – the affliction that has dented, disrupted or destroyed many a rookie sensation before him. His performances for the Springboks in 2013 confirmed that what we saw in his breakthrough year was the emergence of an impossibly gifted player with longevity, not the rise of another hyped man.

Etzebeth is the real deal.

It seems ludicrous to even put forward the premise of this argument, but there was a significant portion of the South African rugby fraternity who had reserved judgement on the 22-year-old lock, waiting for him to replicate the feats of his debut international season. He not only did that, but built his potency to a level where the IRB recognised him as one of the five best in the world by shortlisting him for the Player of the Year award.

Plaudits have flowed liberally for Etzebeth, but I’d venture a guess that none have pleased him more than those from Bakkies Botha, whom he has succeeded as the Springboks’ enforcer. Botha’s Twitter timeline is laden with messages to and about Etzebeth.

Now, to understand the significance of this you have to have insight into Botha’s manner. In many informal chats I’ve had with Heyneke Meyer, he has regaled me with stories of Botha’s days at the Bulls.

The iconic Springbok second-rower is notoriously suspicious of any young player (this is putting it mildly), making them earn his respect through a thorough examination of their technical ability and, most pertinently, their physical and mental strength. But he seems to have softened to Etzebeth.

The duo have never faced off against each other in a competitive match, but on the November tour of 2013, Botha could be seen consistently encouraging him and offering advice. Considering the duo are battling for one starting position, it speaks volumes of Botha’s estimation of him. Botha has an affinity for Etzebeth because he sees in him a myriad shared qualities. Etzebeth reciprocates the love because he sees in Botha everything he hopes to become.

‘I’ve worked with both players and the similarities are vast,’ says Springbok forward coach Johann van Graan. ‘Technically, they can be deployed to do exactly the same jobs around the park. They both have a formidable physical presence that earns them massive respect from their opponents. Eben is the better athlete which means we can use him in more dynamic ways, but Bakkies’ ability in this regard is underrated. Eben also has a greater interest in and inclination towards the science of lineout play. This isn’t the case with Bakkies, whose main strengths lie in the tight loose and defence.’

Etzebeth’s showings in the Rugby Championship were consistently outstanding and underlined his class. He averaged nearly nine tackles per game (seventh best in the tournament), won 33 lineouts (best in the tournament) and made three lineout steals (the best of the Springboks), beat an average of 1.3 defenders per Test (17th best in the tournament but best among tight forwards) and made four breakdown turnovers (eighth best in the tournament, while only Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Louw made more for the Springboks). 

‘His growth [from his rookie season] has been encouraging but not unexpected at all,’ Van Graan says. ‘We’ve known for some time that he is a special, special player and with that calibre of player this type of growth doesn’t come as a surprise. He obviously has great technical and physical ability, but only the players with an immense work ethic and rugby intelligence grow at the rate he has.’

The prospect of Etzebeth pairing up with the gifted Pieter-Steph du Toit in the coming years is exciting. There was a brief glimpse of it against Wales, and 2014 should see that partnership develop further. In theory, the young bucks should complement each other perfectly, in much the same way Victor Matfield and Botha did in their prime. Matfield returns to Super Rugby with the hope his performances demand a Springbok call-up, and if this materialises, Etzebeth and Du Toit will benefit from his and Botha’s experience. There is no finer education for young locks. 

A draconian workload remains the primary threat to Etzebeth’s career. He will miss a considerable chunk of the Stormers’ Super Rugby campaign after seriously injuring his foot against France in November, but will surely play regularly once fit. If he doesn’t suffer a recurrence of that problem or the one that curtailed his Super Rugby involvement in 2013 (after repeated blows, Etzebeth’s ankle is held together by hope alone), Etzebeth will be the Springboks’ incumbent No 4 lock for the duration of the 2014 season, where he’ll play a full 80 minutes in the majority of matches.

There is no clear strategy in place to manage him at this point, with Meyer and Stormers coach Allister Coetzee adamant that he is central to their success and convinced his absence compromises the potential for that success. In a high-pressure, results-driven environment, you can understand their position on this. However, the well-being of a prime asset like Etzebeth should trump a coach’s cause every time. At the current rate, his chance of playing at the game’s highest levels for more than five years looks bleak. Being robbed of a talent of his magnitude would be a rugby travesty.

Here’s hoping sense prevails in the coming years. Etzebeth, on the evidence of his formative years, has the potential to surpass Botha as the game’s finest ever No 4 lock.

– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine

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