Eben Etzebeth’s Bok century is reward for consistency at the top
On Saturday 16 July, against Wales, 30-year-old lock Eben Etzebeth became the youngest man to earn 100 caps for the Springboks.
Eben Etzebeth is an imposing figure by any measure. Standing 2.03m tall and weighing about 120kg with a single-digit fat percentage, he is a massive, strong man. A supreme athlete.
But supreme athletes are not rare at the pinnacle of rugby, or any other professional sport. What sets the greats apart is attitude. Mental toughness. And in Etzebeth’s case — the eyes. Looking into that coal-black stare must be what the mythological ancients felt when Medusa cast her glare upon them. It can turn men to stone.
The giant Bok lock doesn’t only play like he means business, he also looks like he means it. Teammates love him, and — few adversaries will admit it — he strikes fear into opponents.
“There are certain players in rugby that others dread coming up against. Eben is one of those players,” Heyneke Meyer, the Bok coach who gave Etzebeth his first Test cap against England in 2012, told SA Rugby magazine in 2021.
Etzebeth is the spiritual leader of the Boks pack — the enforcer. And he relishes the role. But he is also so much more than that because his qualities do not begin and end at physicality.
The fear is more psychological at the highest level. Opponents know that he is going to hurt them physically when he smashes into a ruck, makes a tackle or carries into contact. That’s accepted. But the hurt that opponents fear is damage he can inflict on their line-out, on their gain line or on their scrum. Rugby carnage, in other words.
“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,” Etzebeth told Daily Maverick recently.
“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.
“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.”
Skills and subtleties
Etzebeth might have the reputation of being a blunt instrument, but his skills and subtleties are profound. You don’t play 100 Tests for anyone, let alone South Africa, which produces more world-class locks than Chubb, if you don’t offer a wide range of skills.
The 30-year-old is an underrated ball carrier and ball player because of his massive physicality and because his basic locking skills are excellent.
But observe more closely. His hands are soft, and he often uses his feet just before taking contact.
He might enjoy running over people, but it’s not necessarily his only option. Etzebeth is a proper ball player, which probably stems from his formative years as a backline player.
“I played in the backline until I was in Grade 10,” Etzebeth told this writer in 2012. “But I started growing that year and I also started hitting the gym pretty hard. So, I moved to lock in Grade 11 and made the WP Craven Week team.”
The rest is history.
In the third Test against Wales on 16 July, Etzebeth became the youngest man (at 30) to earn 100 caps for the Boks and the second lock after Victor Matfield.
He’s just signed a five-year contract with the Sharks after three seasons at Toulon in France and, if he stays fit, reaching 150 Test caps is probable.
He doesn’t even have a contender for his place on the same level. The Boks might be bursting with two world-class players in almost every position, but as No 4 lock Etzebeth is without peer in this country.
In his previous 99 Tests, Etzebeth has only been yellow-carded twice, which doesn’t quite fit with the “dirty, hard man” reputation.
The perception is that he must have fallen foul of the law much more often than he has. But it just serves to underline that perceptions about Etzebeth are misleading. He fulfils the duties of a world-class lock, but he is far more than that.
“Eben is a massively competitive guy. You don’t play 100 Tests for your country if you don’t have that characteristic,” Bok coach Jacques Nienaber said.
“He makes everything competitive and even personal.
“That sometimes comes across as being someone without discipline, but if you look at his record, it’s actually exceptional. He makes things personal, without losing his head. That’s an important balance that he has developed with experience.”
Etzebeth’s milestone comes in his home city, although not on the ground where he forged his name.
It was at Newlands with the Stormers and Western Province, and in the green and gold of the Boks, where the Etzebeth aura developed.
In the decade since he debuted in a 22-17 win over England, Etzebeth has enjoyed many highs and some lows. Captaining the Springboks in 2017, a 2019 World Cup win and a series victory over the British & Irish Lions in 2021 are obvious highlights.
The unusually sloppy play in the last quarter of the second Test against Wales, where he conceded several penalties that allowed Wales back into the match, was an obvious low.
The thing with Etzebeth is that he seldom has a bad game, however. He was quiet by his own high standards in the first Test of this series, which the Boks won 32-29 at Loftus.
“He took the two penalties he conceded last week personally,” Nienaber said. “That speaks volumes about his character. He knows that discipline is key to winning games — especially because of how tight they are these days.”
The Bok mentor has worked with Etzebeth since he forced his way into the Stormers team in 2012, when Nienaber was the club’s defence coach.
“Eben has always been an athlete. When he started out as a 20-year-old he played for the Stormers and the Springboks before he played for Western Province. He has developed leadership attributes and led his country,” Nienaber said.
“He has matured. We were all naughty when we were younger and he was no different, but then you get some brains as you become older. That’s the growth of a rugby player.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly DM168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.
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