Eben Etzebeth’s ‘enforcer’ role doesn’t disguise huge talent

The 29-year-old Springbok with a colourful career comes up against Leinster on Friday

Eben Etzebeth will face Leinster with Toulon on Friday. Photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images

Eben Etzebeth cuts an imposing figure. It’s not simply a veneer as his rugby rap sheet attests, although that’s more a figurative term. He boasts an uncanny knack of surviving most on-pitch scrapes without suffering a 10-minute cooling off period; or worse.

When the 29-year-old takes umbrage on the pitch he does a great deal more than throw shapes; the object of his ire is physically chastised. Examples are legion throughout his career and can no longer be attributed to the impetuosity of youth.

The litany of incidents suggests that a role of ‘enforcer’ sits easily on his broad shoulders but it doesn’t or shouldn’t distract from his capacity to positively influence a game in pure rugby terms to boot. He is an outstanding rugby player.

Last December while playing for Toulon in a French Top 14 match, the World Cup-winning Springbok secondrow Etzebeth manhandled Lester Etien, grabbing the Stade Francais winger and throwing him several metres across the touchline and in through a gap in the pitch hoarding; a statement tackle.


In a 2017 Rugby Championship Test against Australia, Etzebeth, the South African captain that day, took exception to a hair-pull by Wallabies fullback Israel Folau on Springbok wing Dillyn Leyds and sought instant retribution by vigorously bundling Folau to the ground and then for good measure pinning the latter’s teammate Kurtley Beale who had tried to intervene.

He exchanged blows with former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton in a Test in Edinburgh who, according to the South African, had pushed him in the face and he has also been involved in verbal altercations with All Blacks Julian Savea and Brodie Retallick as well as Argentina’s Tomas Lavinini.

Etzebeth is not averse to getting involved in scraps with erstwhile teammates and friends. While playing for the Stormers against the Cheetahs in a Super Rugby match he confronted his fellow Springbok Lood de Jager who had the temerity to shoulder Etzebeth in an off the ball collision. Apparently they laughed about it when meeting up at national squad training the following weekend.

Etzebeth tackles Ben Donnell of London Irish. Photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images

There is another story, some of details of which the South African clarified, when on the Joe’s House of Rugby Ireland podcast with Fergus McFadden, Chris Henry and Ronan O’Mahony recently.

Ulster number eight and a good friend of Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee, told of being awoken one night while sharing a room on international duty to find his teammate looming over him demanding an explanation as to why his face cloth had brown marks on it.

The abridged version is that Coetzee had made a couple of hot chocolates for the two of them while Etzebeth was out of the room and spilled a little of the contents on the floor. He grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a face cloth, mopped up the mess and threw it in the corner of the room.

Etzebeth found his face cloth, a red one - the rest of the towels in the room were white - with brown marks on it and demanded an explanation as to what they were. The matter was resolved amicably.

Before Toulon’s Heineken Champions Cup game against Sale Sharks at Stade Mayol in December, Etzebeth took exception to an instinctive reaction from his teammate, replacement scrumhalf Anthony Meric to grab onto his shirt as they completed a mauling exercise. Meric was holding a tackle shield in one hand and it appeared a reflex action to avoid falling over.

However Etzebeth snapped, grabbed the scrumhalf and briefly shook him like a ragdoll, before glaring at his teammate for a second or two; a strikingly disproportionate reaction to an innocuous coming together. Whatever about rugby bust ups, he was accused of a more serious transgression on a night out just before the Springboks left for the World Cup in Japan.

In August 2019 he and a group of friends were accused of physically and racially abusing four men outside a pub/nightclub in the coastal town of Langebaan, about an hour’s drive north of Cape Town. Etzebeth vehemently denied the allegations.

South African Rugby ordered an inquiry into the matter led by former judge Johann van der Westhuizen and last August the findings were revealed, the player cleared of both charges. The police and the South African Human Rights Commission also investigated the matter independently. Etzebeth said in a rugby interview when talking about his nature: “I am a firm believer in what I stand for and what I do on and off the pitch.”

Etzebeth became a World Cup winner in 2019. Photo: Clive Rose - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

On Friday evening at the RDS, Leinster will be the focus of his attention in a Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 tie. One of the world’s best secondrows has been employed as a blindside flanker on several occasions this season in the French Top 14 - it’s very much in keeping with how French teams orientate their back five in the pack - but on this occasion Toulon’s head coach Patrice Collazo has selected him as a lock.

Whether in the back or second rows, there’s no doubting his capacity to influence a match. He carries hard, hits hard, wins turnovers at the breakdown and these qualities on top of his ability in the lineout, both on his own and the opposition throw, define an unrelenting physical force who relishes confrontation.

Having played in the Challenge Cup tournament last season - Toulon were beaten in the final by Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears - he’s “excited to be playing one of the best teams in Europe on Friday night in Dublin.” He said: “It is up to us to bring it and be at our best.” There’s little doubt that he will.