DURBAN – Through the dark days of Springbok rugby in the past few years, there were whispers that the green and gold jersey was losing its lustre and lure. Players were fleeing for bigger cheques overseas, and the once mighty Boks were breaking all the wrong records.
However, under Rassie Erasmus, those scars are slowly healing. Regardless of the results, there seems to be a big push to bring back the pride in the Springbok jersey.
This was further made apparent when hulking lock Eben Etzebeth faced the media before his first game back for the Boks in over eight months.
Through a massive grin, Etzebeth said: “I just love Springbok rugby so much!” It was clearly genuine, but pessimistic, grumpy sports journalists like to see the talking being done on the field, and boy, did Etzebeth roar pride and passion!
The performance from the Stormers lock was out of this world, even without taking into his consideration his long lay-off. At the same media conference, Etzebeth was confronted with his coach’s plan to take him off after 50 or so minutes, and with a wry smile, he responded that he hoped he would stay on for the full 80.
And that is exactly what happened perhaps against the wishes of the coach, who must have been puzzling as to how many wild horses he would need to chain to Etzebeth to drag him from the Kings Park pitch.
What is really pleasing about this whole situation is that there is indeed a deep rooted love for the Springboks from their players. Etzebeth personified his passion for his national team and it made him seemingly superhuman.
At this level of sport, there is so much focus on squeezing out that extra one percent of performance from athletes, but when they play with such passion and fire, surely they are adding so much more to their game than a mere percent.
It also spells out quite clearly that coach Rassie need not go hunting for players who are not wanting to play for the badge on their chest. The coach has made special dispensation to bring in overseas Boks, and the ones he has selected are here for the Boks and nothing else.
There was speculation that the likes of Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis withdrew from the England series - supposedly under an injury cloud - because of disagreement of terms. While that is all fair and well, it shows a clear disinterest in playing with passion for the Boks in an Etzebeth-esque manner, and so be it, they are now surplus to requirements.
If the Boks can cultivate this passion-fuelled culture, and have a man like Etzebeth lead the charge, it can be great for the Springboks, especially with a lot of youngsters in the ranks rubbing shoulders with these veterans of the green and gold.
But, besides the passion that exploded out of Etzebeth, it is also great to have the man back playing such rugby while feeling no ill effects of his long lay-off. No one would have criticised the big man for a quiet game, but he was the bannerman of the physicality that shocked opposition coach Mario Ledesma.
This week, heading to Argentina, the Springboks will be lost a little at sea in a stadium full of partisan Pumas fans, but if the passion for the Springbok continues to burn and grow, it should be no problem.