A couple of months ago I wrote a piece entitled “Why we go to war with Eben Etzebeth”. Every notion was affirmed over an unrelenting 80-minute shift from Etzebeth in which he was the best forward on the field in a game determined only at the gain line. By Oliver Keohane.
Cheslin Kolbe was brilliant and followed through on every expectation that existed from his European form. His carries, running meters and tackles –albeit impressive – didn’t do justice to the effectiveness of every single one of his contributions, from the try assist, to every gainline success, scrapped tackle, high ball take and even his deputy scrum-half duties while Faf De Klerk sat in the sin bin.
But Eben Etzebeth was my Man of the Match as South Africa “A” inflicted the first tour loss on the British & Irish Lions (17-13).
Watch: Kolbe’s footwork and try assist
Cheslin Kolbe! That’s it. That’s the tweet! pic.twitter.com/J68xhWEJiX
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) July 14, 2021
In a game that was only ever going to be won through through raw physicality and grit, Etzebeth was phenomenal. Even as a spectator it was obvious that Etzebeth, in the absence of Kolisi, immediately absorbed the leadership role in the SA A pack. When South Africa lost Pieter-Steph Du Toit to head injury, had debut lock Nicolas Janse Van Rensburg coming on and Jesse Kriel finishing at number eight as brute loose-forward Jasper Wiese left the field, Etzebeth’s contributions just seemingly continued to increase.
For 80 minutes Etzebeth led the assault on Lions flyhalf Owen Farrell, forcing a try through a charged down kick early on and then maintaining the same intensity in the rush for the remainder of the game. Etzebeth was at the front line of close quarters defence as South Africa made tackle after tackle for seven minutes on their try-line before controversially losing Faf De Klerk and Marco Van Staden to yellow cards within two minutes of one another, and he was also everywhere when the game was stretched out wide.
South Africa put down their marker to the British & Irish Lions not just in winning the game over 80 minutes, but in legally writing off veteran Liam Williams in the first minute. Eben Etzebeth made that tackle.
Etzebeth played like like a man possessed and was as much a loose forward as he was a lock in his defensive contributions in the wider channels. This was at no expense to his presence at the rucks nor at the lineouts, which fired for South Africa.
This is the same Eben Etzebeth, let us not forget, who was apparently an injury doubt a few days ago because of rib issues.
This is why we have gone to war with him before and this is why he will lead the Springboks physical war on the Lions come the test series starting next Saturday. As the South African team fatigued, Etzebeth continued to rise, and as much as he was a physical influence, he was a symbol of inspiration to a Springbok group that needed a reminder after a year and half of no rugby why they are number 1 in the world, and how they got there: Through, as Rassie Erasmus reminded them before every World Cup game, “physically f*cking the opposition up”.
The “one trick ponies” as former British & Irish Lions centre Jeremy Guscott dubbed the Springboks only need that one trick when Eztebeth is the magician from the middle of every maul, ruck, lineout and tackle. Etzebeth’s statistics will emerge in the week and will no doubt be impressive, but as with Kolbe they won’t come close to telling the story of his impact on the match.
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