Tough enforcer fast-tracked into the Test scene
RUGBY: Bakkies Botha, perhaps the ultimate rugby gladiator, has departed the Test arena for Toulon but the tradition of Springbok enforcers wearing the number four jersey never missed a beat.
The nephew of Cliffie and Skattie Etzebeth, feared bar-room brawlers from the rough northern Cape Town suburb of Parow, has seen to that.
Meet Eben Etzebeth; the 21-year-old kid with a potentially perfect mixture of talent and agility and aggression.
The youtube collection is already growing for the latest gargantuan lock offered up by South African rugby.
Despite only graduating from the under-20 ranks this season – he faced Ireland twice during last year’s Junior World Cup – Etzebeth immediately went about tearing down the pillars of both Wallaby pack and South African scrum. And anyone else who looked at him sideways.
Household name status was achieved during last July’s Super Rugby semi-final between his beloved Stormers and the Sharks. Etzebeth received possession at first receiver in an upright position, therefore unable to build up a head of steam before Bismarck du Plessis thundered into him.
The world’s greatest hooker was knocked unconscious in the collision. It took another few metres before Bismarck’s brother Jannie and Willem Alberts – both starting forwards this Saturday – hauled him to ground.
The stadium and Stormers bench rose in unison as if celebrating victory. The reverberation was felt around the rugby world. “In South Africa people still talk about that but, I mean, that is how I like to play. I like running with the ball, it is always nice if you hand off another player.”
The retirement of legendary locking pair Victor Matfield and Botha, coupled with injury to Andries Bekker, his “mentor” at Western Province, saw him fast-tracked into the Test team for this year’s Rugby Championship.
Against Australia he went straight after centurion lock Nathan Sharpe, subsequently receiving a two-week suspension for head-butting that denied him a shot at the All Blacks in New Zealand.
It also prompted a dressing down from head coach Heyneke Meyer, but the man who coached Botha at the Blue Bulls was surely thinking one word during the lecture. Eureka! “Ya, he told me I mustn’t to it (again) otherwise I am going to get a bad reputation. I think what he did was the right thing but he always supports me and still backs me. I thank him for that.” So you learnt your lesson? “Ya, for sure. I won’t do it again!”
We tentatively asked about becoming the Springbok enforcer, about stepping into the role of intimidating opponents, which Botha happily embraced for nine long years. The answer was refreshingly blunt. “In South Africa if you play with the number four on your back it is your role to be an enforcer and try to influence play by hitting rucks and making big tackles. I know the responsibility of that.” So you like to let the opposition know you are there? “Ya, that is part of wearing number four.”
Warning has been served to Donnacha Ryan and whoever else wants a piece of him.
We ask about interests outside of rugby and he informs us rugby is everything. We ask about Cliffie and Skattie. “One of them (Cliffie) played for Western Province from 77 to 81 and they also played club rugby in Cape Town.”
There’s buckets of stories about the uncles late night activity. Here’s one. The famous South African administrator Danie “Doc” Craven asked Cliffie to “look after” former Springbok captain Morné du Plessis the night after he concussed famous outhalf Naas Botha with a late tackle during a provincial scrap at Loftus Versfeld. Cliffie grabbed two fellow beasts from the Western Province pack and armed with a few cases of beer sat guard in the hotel corridor outside Morné’s room.
“My family where they grew up they had quite tough love. I think my parents always wanted the best for me. They were never actually that tough on me but it was probably just in the blood, the toughness.”
Eben Etzebeth: Factfile
Height: 2.03 / 6ft 8ins
Weight: 117kg / 18 stone 6 lb
Born: October 29th, 1991 (just turned 21)
Provincial – 3
Caps: Super Rugby – 8
International caps – 13