Eben Etzebeth’s long quest for respect
The evergreen lock will be joining the Sharks when he returns to South Africa in June.
Harsh words were spoken in the wake of South Africa’s 22-17 defeat to the British & Irish Lions in 2021. While the media and public obsessed over a leaked video analysis which focused on numerous errors by the referee, the Springbok players took a different approach.
A brutally honest conversation was held behind closed doors, with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus slamming the home team’s performance and issuing an ultimatum: It’s time for the players to get one another’s respect back.
Eben Etzebeth took the message personally, and went on to deliver some of his most physical performances in the second and third Tests. Galvanised by their talisman, the Bok pack laid the platform for two wins and a series victory that will echo into eternity.
Fight for respect galvanised Boks
It’s been nearly a year since a star-studded South African side overcame numerous obstacles to slay the Lions. Etzebeth has faced a series of challenges since then, but has come through the grinder with his reputation enhanced.
“It wasn’t a great feeling, sitting there in the change room, knowing that you’d just lost the first Test of a once-in-a-lifetime series,” Etzebeth told DM168 when asked to recall the turning point of the 2021 series.
“We started to talk about what we needed to do in the second game, about how we were going to fix things. It was do or die. If we lost that game and the series, we knew that we’d never have another chance in our careers to beat the Lions.
“So we put everything on the line in the second Test, and in the third, which was as intense as a World Cup final. It’s fair to say that we emerged with our reputations intact.
“I look at the guys that won the 2019 World Cup, and then the series against the Lions series. Man… I have a lot of respect for those guys.”
Etzebeth expanded on the subject of mutual respect in a recent interview with former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton for RugbyPass.
In 2021, Etzebeth started in 13 out of a possible 15 matches for South Africa, and was subsequently nominated for the SA Rugby Player of the Year award. At home and abroad, he was hailed as one of the best players in world rugby.
When he returned to Toulon, however, he was stood down for three months due to concussion protocols. After he was cleared to play, he tore his calf.
These setbacks were overlooked, as Toulon president Bernard Lemaître proceeded to question Etzebeth’s dedication and loyalty, and labelled the lock “a clear handicap for the club”.
It was a bizarre statement, and was bizarrely endorsed by former Bok enforcer Bakkies Botha. This prompted a reaction from Etzebeth, who took to social media to question Botha’s own loyalty and respect. Botha explained that his comments were taken out of context, and the former Bok teammates buried the hatchet.
Etzebeth’s primary response was on the field of play. He was at the heart of a dominant physical display in the European Challenge Cup semifinal against Saracens – a side stacked with England and Lions players. Toulon will face Lyon in the decider on 27 May.
“That semifinal felt like a Test match,” Etzebeth said.
“It was a massive game for us, in the context of the competition and in the context of our season. It was also my first game against Saracens, which I had been looking forward to for a while. It was great to come out of that kind of battle with a win.
“When I came back from injury a few months ago, the club wasn’t in a great place, and there was no talk about playoffs and certainly no talk about trophies. A lot of people over here in France wrote us off.
“That’s when we came together as players and said, right, how do we fix this? We gained a lot of respect for each other during that period. We started to put our bodies on the line, and we started to get the results.
“It’s been a tough journey, and you could see what it meant to us when we celebrated the win against Saracens.”
Coming of age in France
Etzebeth recently got engaged to long-time girlfriend Anila van Rensburg. The couple will move back to South Africa next month, when Etzebeth begins a five-year stint at the Sharks.
“I’ve learnt a lot about myself during this two-and-half-year period in France,” he said.
“It was tough initially, as I had to spend about eight months away from my family, who weren’t allowed to visit due to Covid restrictions. Anyone who knows me will tell you how much my family means to me.
“I had a lot of time to think about the future. Overall, I’d say I’m not the same person who left Cape Town back in 2019.”
There’s been a notable shift by Etzebeth on the field, too.
While he continues to set the physical tone for his team, and is often the player at the heart of a scuffle, he rarely – if ever – oversteps the mark and concedes a yellow card.
He also isn’t afraid to engage with referees and to adapt his approach as the contest unfolds.
“I go out there to play as hard as I can. At the same time, I’m always thinking about what it might cost my team if I step over the line.
“As you gain more experience, you gain a greater appreciation for the flow of the game. You get an idea of the referees and what they’re looking for. While you play on the edge, you don’t push it too far.”
Despite representing his country in 97 Tests, the 30-year-old continues to approach every game as if it’s his last.
“It’s been 10 years since I made my Test debut, but I haven’t lost that passion for the game or for the opportunity to represent the Boks.
“When you’re young, you’re desperate to prove yourself and savour every moment in that Springbok jersey. As you get older, you start to wonder when the journey will end. You go out there and give it everything you have.”
Joining the Sharks revolution
Etzebeth will link up with good friend Siya Kolisi – the Springbok captain – at the Sharks ahead of next season. As much as he’s enjoyed the lifestyle in France, and the unique challenge of French rugby, he believes the time is right to tackle something new.
“I’m a South African through and through, and it will always be my home. The Sharks have impressed me with the way they have gone about things on and off the field, so it wasn’t a hard decision to sign with them.
“I’ve been speaking to guys like Siya, Bongi Mbonambi and Thomas du Toit over the past few months. It seems like the Sharks have big plans for the future, in terms of the franchise and the players. There’s a plan in place to help the players realise their potential on and off the pitch.
“I don’t like the idea of ‘being managed’, but it will be good for my career to be back in South Africa and closer to guys like Andy Edwards [the Boks’ conditioning coach] who can implement a plan to ensure that I serve the Sharks and the Boks to the best of my ability.
“It’s harder to do that in France, because the clubs will have their own ideas about how they want to deploy you.”
Etzebeth is not the first player to call for smarter player management, and possibly a move towards a global season that will mitigate player burnout.
“It’s something that they have to address. I realise that there’s not a simple answer. They have to find a way to ensure that the Test teams and the clubs get the best out of the players, and that player welfare is taken into account.
“Whatever they decide, I just hope that Test matches remain the big thing. Nothing beats a Test for your country.”
Chasing 100 caps
Etzebeth will join an elite South African club later this year when he wins his 100th Test cap. Percy Montgomery, Victor Matifeld, John Smit, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira are the only other Boks who have reached this milestone.
“I would like to tell you that I’m not thinking about it, but it is in the back of my mind.
“I’ve seen players reach that milestone, but I’ve also seen some great players falling short of it. You can’t just assume that you will get there.
“I want to get through this season in Europe first, and to win a title with Toulon. It would be a great way to sign off in France.
“Then I will get back to South Africa and reconnect with my teammates and prepare for that series against Wales. You might say that I could win my 100th cap in the third Test of that series, or in the Rugby Championship, or even later in the year… I’m only thinking about winning my 98th cap, though. Maybe when I get my 99th, I will allow myself to get excited.”
Wales coach Wayne Pivac announced his 33-man squad for the tour to South Africa last week. While Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones looks set to resume his rivalry with Etzebeth, a number of big names have been omitted. It’s feared that the Dragons may struggle to prevent a 3-0 series defeat.
Showdown with France
The Boks will face greater challenges as the season progresses. A double-header against the All Blacks in South Africa will be followed by a two-Test tour of Australia, where the Boks haven’t beaten the Wallabies since 2013.
Thereafter, the Boks will travel to Europe to face Ireland, France, Italy and England in successive weeks. The showdown between the No 1 team in the world and France – the Six Nations champions and the hosts of Rugby World Cup 2023 – is being billed as the clash of the year.
“France have been building steadily for the past few years, and have started to win consistently in 2022,” Etzebeth observed.
“You can see how successful their clubs have been in Europe over the past two seasons. Two French teams contested the Champions Cup final last year. Toulon will play Lyon in the Challenge Cup final next week, and La Rochelle will play Leinster in the Champions Cup final – so that’s three out of the four finalists who are French.
“They’re getting it right at those levels, and the national team is reaping the benefits. The fans on this side of the world are getting really excited about what it could mean for the World Cup in 2023. I think it’s fantastic for rugby.
“As a South African, I don’t mind it at all,” he added. “The Boks will arrive in France next year as the defending champions. At the same time, we may be flying under the radar, as teams like France will be expected to succeed.”
England coach Eddie Jones recently suggested that the Bok side that won the World Cup in 2019 and the Lions series in 2021 may be past its best by 2023.
And yet, if Etzebeth and his teammates continue to fight to earn one another’s respect, they will travel to France with a great chance of adding to their legacy. DM
An edited version of this story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.