The evolution of Eben

Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth has evolved his game to perform a multi-faceted role that adds value across the park, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Etzebeth is far more than just an enforcer. At 24, he has matured as a player and person, and he’s wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the most feared and revered locks in world rugby.

When Etzebeth first burst on to the scene, he understandably caught the eye. The giant of a man boasted all the raw potential to become one of the second-row legends of the game, and four years after making his Super Rugby debut, all the signs are still there to suggest he will go on to fulfill that potential.

Against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this past Saturday, Etzebeth was 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. In the last Super Rugby season, Etzebeth ranked No 2 in terms of lineouts stolen, made 78 carries, completed four turnovers and successfully executed five offloads.

Understandably, Etzebeth was a shoo-in for the Man of the Match award against the Cheetahs, with the Stormers completing their first win in Bloemfontein since 2012.

Besides Etzebeth’s increasing all-round contributions as a player, importantly he has also improved his discipline without sacrificing the necessary elements of controlled aggression and physicality. The fiery second rower has conceded just one penalty in 160 minutes of rugby so far this season.

On the eve of last year’s World Cup, Etzebeth explained the approach to his role as a designated ‘enforcer’ in an interview with SA Rugby magazine.

‘That on-field role and experience is something very different to what you experience outside rugby. When I go on to the field, that mental switch is required to be able to enforce that physicality on the game, but it’s also a very fine line between being able to do that and ensuring discipline is maintained, particularly if the opposition is looking for a reaction out of you.’

Beneficially for the Springboks and Stormers, Etzebeth is also set to spend this season playing alongside the immensely talented, and finally injury-free, Pieter-Steph du Toit. It’s a combination that could bring out the best in both players.

After the Stormers’ opening match against the Bulls, coach Robbie Fleck acknowledged that it was a partnership that boasted immense potential.

‘What I really liked is that they hunted in twos and were always together, and it was almost like a budding Victor Matfield-Bakkies Botha combination where you just always see them working together. They complement each other's strengths, they’re good mates and I’m sure it will be a good partnership going forward.’

Du Toit is 23. Etzebeth is 24. Frighteningly for opponents, their best could still be to come.

Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix

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