- Eben Etzebeth was one of the many stand-out Springbok players in South Africa’s win over France in Paris on Sunday.
- The 31-year-old featured in several key moments which finger-tipped the World Cup quarter-final South Africa’s way and had the largely French home crowd braying and whistling at their new pantomime villain.
- Former Springbok captain Victor Matfield’s view that Etzebeth was “probably the best player in the world”.
Of the many Springboks who put their hands up during the thrilling win over France in Paris on Sunday, none was more important or timely than veteran lock forward Eben Etzebeth.
The 31-year-old featured in several key moments which finger-tipped the World Cup quarter-final South Africa’s way and had the largely French home crowd braying and whistling at their new pantomime villain.
Most vital was his game-breaking try 13 minutes from time, but from the opening moments, he figured largely in the contests that altered the balance, living up to former Springbok captain Victor Matfield’s view that Etzebeth was “probably the best player in the world”.
Francois Louw, who won a World Cup winner’s medal alongside him in 2019, said “stalwart” Etzebeth plays a crucial role for the Boks.
“I think all teams have an enforcer, someone that brings that physicality, and that role has changed so much over the years,” he said on Tuesday.
“Those players are becoming more and more dynamic, not just a big bruiser but someone who plays really good rugby.
“He has developed his game over time. He’s a tough bloke, he came out charging when he first came onto the international scene.
“To contain that aggression and angle it to a point that is more effective for the team, he has done an amazing job in that.
“His influence in the victory (against France) was immense.”
It was Etzebeth’s giant right paw that made a crucial and controversial intervention early on, with France leading 7-0 and knocking on the South African tryline.
The home crowd hooted and bayed for a deliberate knock-on as referee Ben O’Keeffe and the TMO team agreed that he had somehow palmed the ball backwards.
Moments later, the Sharks’ forward was challenging in midfield for a high ball that ultimately bounced kindly for Kurt-Lee Arendse, allowing the wing to scoot through for the Boks’ opening try, which levelled the scores.
Just before half-time, the French element of the Paris crowd, not necessarily schooled in the notion of bent knees offering ‘mitigating circumstances’ in the tackle, were incensed that Etzebeth was only handed a yellow card rather than red after a clash of heads with Uini Atonio.
And late in the game, with the Springboks trailing 25-19, it was Etzebeth who collected the ball from a ruck 10 metres from the French line and barged and bullied his way through the collective tackles of Matthieu Jalibert, Thomas Ramos and Pierre Bourgarit.
It was another panto moment, the angry green giant swotting away the flies. This time, there was no hissing from the French, only an awed silence.
Etzebeth’s try, converted by Handre Pollard, gave the Boks a lead they never let go, their 29-28 win sending them through to a semi-final against England next Saturday.
First capped against England in 2012, Etzebeth, who stands 2.04 metres and weighs in at 119kg, will win his 118th cap in Paris on Saturday, leaving him just nine short of Matfield’s South Africa record of 127.
“Eben is the heart of the pack,” said Matfield just before the pool game against Ireland.
“When you think about the physicality he brings, in the mauls, in the middle of it, stopping mauls… being the powerhouse.
“He’s also got an engine, and he never stops.”
Off the field, he flirted with controversy in 2019, the year he won the World Cup with the Boks, when he and his cousin were accused of assault and racial slurs in an incident in Langebaan.
Etzebeth was never charged, and the case never went to court, but his public image, along the lines of ‘no smoke without fire’, undoubtedly took a hit.
After recovering from a shoulder injury this year, he suffered another dark personal moment in July when his father, Harry, died from cancer. Captaining the side in the absence of Siya Kolisi, he led his team in Auckland a few days later.
It has been a remarkable journey of endurance and sustained high performance.
The Boks will be hoping their ‘enforcer’ does not stop, at least until he has a second winner’s medal hanging around his neck.