When Bakkies Botha pretty much called it a day after last year’s World Cup in New Zealand, one of the big questions about the future of the Springboks was: who would be the next second row enforcer?
No-one stood out as Danie Rossouw had also decided to play his rugby elsewhere and Andries Bekker, while 2,08m tall, doesn’t play in the front of the line-out and isn’t considered a hard-man of South African Rugby.
In the background, having recently helped the University of Cape Town to the Varsity Cup title was young 19-year-old Eben Etzebeth. He was one of the finds of the 2011 Varsity Cup campaign and within weeks he’d be training with the Stormers ahead of 2012 Super Rugby and a little while later he’d be wearing the Springbok No4 on his back, Botha’s successor found.
Etzebeth, who celebrated his 21st birthday last week, admits he’s got a big responsibility wearing the No4. “If you’ve got that number on your back you have to be an enforcer ... Bakkies did it and now it’s my turn,” he said this week with a laugh.
“It’s the No4’s responsibility and role to hit rucks hard and make big tackles ... it’s part of my job. I need to let the opposition know I’m on the field.”
Etzebeth got a little too wound up earlier this season though, making as if he wanted to headbutt Australian lock Nathan Sharpe, an indiscretion which cost the Bok rookie a week on the sidelines. He said it was a good lesson learned. “Ya, Heyneke came down hard on me, but it was good that he did that ... it’s not going to help me if I get a reputation for being that kind of a player, so I’ve learned my lesson.”
The 2,03m lock’s rise to the top is quite sensational if one considers he never went to the “right schools” in Cape Town.
He attended Goodwood Park Primary where his dad and uncles coached him from seven years of age and only later, towards the end of his high school career, was he spotted and given a bursary to attend Tygerberg High.
“I always played in the backline, in the centres, up to grade 10, but when I went to Tygerberg in grade 11 I moved to lock. I’d just turned 17 and knew immediately that I was too tall to play in the backs. I think I made the move at the right time because those two years at Tygerberg allowed me to learn about lock play so that when I left school I was ready to take the step up.”
Playing for so many years in the centre of his school’s team is probably one of the reasons why Etzebeth is not only a forwards enforcer but also knows how to pass a ball. In many people’s eyes, he’s the perfect blend between Botha and Victor Matfield.
After leaving school he teamed up with Steph Nel at the Western Province Rugby Institute at Stellenbosch University and it was at this stage Etzebeth realised he had the build and the game to make rugby his life ... and career. “I was offered one year at Stellenbosch and I didn’t want to waste it. I knew I had to work hard and make the most of the chance. I set myself some goals and I started believing things could happen for me.
“But after that first year I wasn’t sure where I wanted to play but a friend organised a deal for me at UCT, they gave me a room and I played Varsity Cup.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Etzebeth’s signature was one of the most sought-after in the country following the 2011 Varsity Cup competition but he was quickly snaffled up by Western Province and the Stormers. “At the start of that season, the first-choice locks were Andries Bekker and Rynard Elstadt and I was preparing to play a back-up role from off the bench,” said Etzebeth.
“Rynard got injured early on and I was pushed into the starting team. It was a blessing in disguise, but it wasn’t nice for Rynard.
“I suppose I took my chance.Allister Coetzee showed plenty of faith in me and backed me and that’s all you want as a player. I haven’t looked back.”
Indeed, things have happened fast for the man from Cape Town’s northern suburbs. He’s very quickly become an integral part of the Bok pack and will be a key man going forward. And, unlike many rugby players who put their opponents on pedestals and talk highly of them, Etzebeth’s got nothing to say about the men he comes up against on the field.
“I just go out and play the situation ... you don’t need to know who’s opposite you, there’s so much analysis anyway nowadays. Every game is different, the situations and circumstances change so it makes no difference whether you study a guy or not. Just play what’s in front of you.”
Within the space of eight Test matches and being just 21 years old, Etzebeth is now one of the first names coach Heyneke Meyer will put on the team sheet every week. “It’s been a great year for me ... it really has. Everything has happened so fast. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be in this position at the start of the year.
“But I suppose if you set the bar high and have an ambition to achieve more and more all the time, anything is possible.
“It’s my dream come true.”