In the second of a six-part series, SA Rugby magazine’s writers pick their world team of the year, based on performances throughout 2021.
Eben Etzebeth was a colossus for the Boks in 2021. One of the best players over the British & Irish Lions tour, he took that form into the remainder of the year playing in 12 of the 13 Tests. Etzebeth remains the Springbok enforcer, but he showed tremendous skill in other departments over the year, developing a high-ball game – allowing him to be a primary kick-chaser – targeting flyhalves, charging down kicks and commanding the maul and defensive line.
Maro Itoje to England is Etzebeth to the Springboks, and his consistent delivery was crucial to England’s cause during 2021, most notably in their last-minute win over the Springboks in November. Equally, Itoje was at the front of the British & Irish Lions challenge when they secured their only victory over the Boks. Itoje plays the game on the fringe, and has made a fine job of being a disruptive and dangerous lock, boasting the mobility of a blindside flank.
Eben Etzebeth has been a force of nature in 2021. Following consecutive injuries to RG Snyman, Etzebeth donned the mantle of playing nearly every minute of Springbok rugby this season. He was utterly indomitable in all his outings in the green and gold, but especially ferocious during the Lions series. His snub for World Player of the Year is baffling.
There are few sights in rugby more enthralling than Cameron Woki on the charge. The dynamic Frenchman came of age this year and was a key figure in Les Bleus’ continued ascension to the world stage. Although comfortable in the back row, it was in the engine room where he shone as his side blitzed past the All Blacks.
Eben Etzebeth played 12 of 13 Tests to finish 2021 with 97 Bok caps, and he signed off with arguably his best performance in the green-and-gold jersey. The towering enforcer got through a mountain of work and perfectly walked the line of adding a steel edge to the pack without nesting in the naughty chair.
Special mention for Lood de Jager, Iain Henderson and Adam Beard, but the next-best lock in 2021 was England jumper Maro Itoje. By no means his best season of Test rugby, Itoje consistently showcased his athleticism and work rate despite an up-and-down season where the B&I Lions went down in South Africa, and England followed up a poor Six Nations by putting the touring Wallabies and Springboks to the sword.
It’s hard to look past Eben Etzebeth and Maro Itoje. They have, undoubtedly, been the two best locks in the world at franchise and Test levels this year.
Etzebeth was front and centre – and pretty much everywhere else in between – of the Boks’ campaign. This year Etzebeth cut out much of the ill-discipline that has marred his career and he emerged a better player for it. The 30-year-old dominated throughout the Lions series and his ominous form got even better as the season progressed. At times, he was simply unplayable and it is one of rugby’s great travesties that Etzebeth, with his current form, was bizarrely overlooked as a nominee for the World Player of the Year award.
The only second-row forward in the world that came close to matching Etzebeth, is Itoje. He was arguably the best B&I Lions player during their tour of South Africa, and most definitely their best forward. A constant menace throughout the three-Test series against the Boks, Itoje was again a thorn in the South Africans’ flesh in their one-point loss to England at Twickenham.
To get the most obvious out of the way, Eben Etzebeth was highly unlucky not to be at least nominated for World Player of the Year. The 30-year-old, already a formidable opponent in the tight exchanges, took his game to new heights this year and developed into a very useful kick-chaser. He completed 80 minutes in all but one of the Tests that he started.
Partnering Etzebeth at lock, I have gone for England’s Maro Itoje. Love him or hate him, Itoje always plays the role of spoiler very well. He helped the B&I Lions disrupt the Springbok lineout and maul and was excellent in this facet of the game throughout the year.