Etzebeth recalls Bok glory after EPCR triumph

SHARKS captains Lukhanyo Am and Eben Etzebeth lift the EPCR Challenge Cup trophy in London on Friday night. AFP

SHARKS captains Lukhanyo Am and Eben Etzebeth lift the EPCR Challenge Cup trophy in London on Friday night. AFP

Published May 26, 2024


Mike Greenaway

FOR sheer satisfaction, Eben Etzebeth says the only thing that beats Friday night’s Challenge Cup success is his two World Cup wins with the Springboks. That is what the Sharks’ 36-22 defeat of Gloucester in London means for the Springbok legend.

Etzebeth has been there and done that in a stellar career that has taken him around the globe, but on Friday night he said leading the Sharks to South Africa’s first European title win was extraordinary.

The 32-year-old has been playing provincial rugby since 2012, the year he won the Currie Cup with Western Province, but he has experienced a drought at provincial level since then.

In fact, he knows the pain of losing a Challenge Cup final, having been in the Toulon team that lost the 2022 final to Lyon.

“The last championship I won was the Currie Cup 12 years ago with Western Province when we beat a Sharks (team) coached by John Plumtree,” a beaming Etzebeth said.

“I’ve been in finals, but nobody remembers who lost – only the champions are remembered,” he said.

“To win a first international trophy, and it being the first one the Sharks have won, is special. So, in my club career, this is my best-ever memory.”

The success was so much sweeter for the Sharks given that they were the laughing stock of South African rugby not that long ago when they could not win a game in the United Rugby Championship. They even lost to a Zebre team that had not won in three years.

Etzebeth watched most of those defeats from the stands because of Springbok resting protocols, but when he was once more involved, he famously said to his teammates: “No more! No more laughing stock.”

The Sharks had won just two of their first 11 URC matches and being out of contention for a top-eight spot early in the season meant they could channel their energy into the Challenge Cup.

“The motivation to turn things around came from within the team,” said Etzebeth. “And to accomplish what we have considering where we were four or five months ago is fantastic.

“There was a big drive to win the Challenge Cup as a silver lining to our season, which hasn’t been great,” he summed up before adding: “If you told us at the start of the season that we were going to win the Challenge Cup and qualify for the Champions Cup, we probably would have taken it.”

Etzebeth has played in the Champions Cup with Toulon and knows it is next level. It is the elite club rugby competition in the world and features the best teams from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Wales, South Africa and Italy.

“It is great for this team to play in the Champions Cup next season,” Etzebeth said.

“It is an awesome competition. We made a few great signings, we have some quality players, and want to be measured against the best teams in the world.

“We all know that will be in the Champions Cup, but tonight was special.”

Etzbeth said the Sharks had been building steadily through the Challenge Cup without hitting their straps. They needed to do that against a fired-up Gloucester team that put the Sharks under enormous pressure in the opening 10 minutes.

“I think we left our best performance for last. The guys were just incredible,” the Springbok centurion said.

Etzebeth was asked to rank the win in his long list of accolades.

“This will rate third. The two World Cups will always be No 1 and No 2, but at provincial level this is by far the best memory.

“It’s the first international trophy for the Sharks and the first time a South African team has won a European trophy, so in my club career it’s my best memory ever.”

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