After battling injury and illness this year, Eben Etzebeth will be back in time to stare down the British & Irish Lions and to line up opposite Maro Itoje in what will be the lock battle of the year. Take comfort, South Africans, writes Oliver Keohane.
South Africa’s lock factory has faced a few major hits this year, in RG Snyman’s knee injury at Munster and Lood De Jager’s ongoing injury battle at Sale Sharks. Eben Etzebeth’s broken finger in April added to the woes, and very quickly what looked like a position that could never possibly be a worry for Springbok selectors, had both first choice World Cup-winning players and the substitute missing. It’s not as though there aren’t plenty capable players to cover, but those are three big names to lose in a British & Irish Lions tour year.
While RG Snyman and Lood De Jager remain in doubt, energy should not be wasted on the uncontrollable, but rather focused on the excitement that Eben Etzebeth is back and evidently incredibly fired up.
Toulon have had an indifferent season and find themselves fighting for a Top 6 finish in the Top 14, but Etzebeth’s view is simple. “Once we’re in the top six, it’s a whole different competition. There are just three games left and it’s knockout rugby.”
Bakkies Botha, referred to by the French as “The Butcher” left a legacy unrivalled by many in his six years in Toulon. Etzebeth, who in some seemingly prophetic rite of passage followed his mentor’s footsteps to France seems intent on leaving a legacy of his own at the club, having signed on until 2024.
There will only ever be one Bakkies Botha, but it would be remiss to not draw comparisons between him and Etzebeth, and to not revel in the spectacular handover of the “hard-man” reigns first at the Boks and now in Toulon. The comparisons have been drawn since a 20-year old Etzebeth debuted in a monster series against England in 2012, and many South Africans took comfort in the feeling that the layover from one enforcer to another would not be a long wait. Nine years later and Eben Etzebeth has lived up to every expectation, and will, whether against Georgia in the warm-up games or against the Lions in the real deal, surpass Bakkies’ 85 test caps. Telling of the similar impact of Etzebeth and Bakkies, is that in 85 appearances Bakkies started 77 and in Etzebeth’s 85 caps he has started 80.
He is a player you pick to go to war, as was his predecessor, and his attitude confirms it further.
“It would obviously be great to have fans back but it’s the guys on the field who must make the difference,’ says Etzebeth.
‘If you’re waiting for fans to get you up for a game you’re in the wrong sport.’
Eben Etzebeth is not about peripherals, he is about playing. And he does so with passion, power and unmatched physicality. One should consider the fitness element too, in that Etzebeth will have a couple of games under his belt, be it the remaining Top 14 matches if Toulon make the top six, or the two warm-up games against Georgia, before the British & Irish Lions. This may be even more favourable fitness-wise than the players whose bodies could well be fatigued from the physicality of their respective domestic leagues.
His return to rugby could not be more timely, in the context of the tour but also in anticipation of a match up against Maro Itoje, who is arguably the best lock in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment. With Brodie Retallick’s time out from injury and sabbatical, he will need a huge year back to back up any claims to being the world’s top lock while Itoje and Etzebeth battle it out.
There is also a respect for Itoje’s quality that adds to the anticipation of the two meeting again, with Etzebeth, when questioned on the “hype” surrounding his opposite number, said, “What hype? He is a good player. I’ve watched him play, played against him a few times. He is a world-class second-rower.
“Good player and someone when you do your analysis you probably have to look at for an extra 30, 40 minutes because he gets around the park and has got a big work rate. There is big hype, as you said, but for me, he is a good player, a good lock and he is always good to play against.”
There will be much speculation in the coming weeks over the various exciting one-on-ones to expect when the Springboks run out against the British & Irish Lions, but there will be few as exhilarating as the Number 4 fight that we all, North and South, eagerly await.
WATCH: A reminder of Etzebeth’s presence