GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, looks back at Eben Etzebeth’s rapid transformation from average schoolboy centre to Stormers’ second-row star.
The day after the news of Rassie Erasmus’s resignation as Western Province senior professional coach broke, a gaggle of Cape journalists were gathered on the touchline of the Hermanus Primary School rugby field, watching the Stormers sweat in the mid-January heat.
It says something for Eben Etzebeth’s physique that he was able to deflect the conversation away from the Erasmus saga.
‘Hey, who the hell is that monster? That one over there, the one who looks like a superhero?’ asked one hack.
It didn’t require more than a second glance to recognise the big fellow as one of the stars of the UCT Varsity Cup triumph from the previous year. But, perhaps because Etzebeth was wearing a vest, or maybe because injury had prevented him from playing more than a bit part in the WP U21 campaign in 2011, it did look at that first sighting of 2012 as though he had bulked up considerably.
‘Superhero would be a good description of him; he does have an amazingly proportioned physique,’ agrees WP U21 coach John Dobson. ‘In fact, his biceps are something of a talking point around him. They’re massive and when we have fines meetings we make him show them off as a party trick. He is just ridiculously strong.’
Indeed, and a few days later he was reminding us that he could play a bit too.
His first game for the Stormers was the pre-season friendly against Boland in Wellington, and the force with which he hit the rucks bolstered the impression that the Stormers had indeed uncovered a superhero.
Among the memorable early Etzebeth moments was when he drove a Lions player back several metres in the pre-season game at Newlands, something which by the time Super Rugby had arrived was becoming a regular occurrence. Few young locks have smashed their way as emphatically into the frame in their first season as Etzebeth has.
‘It was incredible to watch Eben make his debut for the Stormers; he had absolutely no trouble making the step up and it was as if he had been there for years,’ says Steph Nel, who was responsible for guiding Etzebeth through his year at the WP Rugby Institute in 2010. ‘It was a huge debut and he was such a presence on the field that it was hard to believe he had undergone an almost overnight transformation from age-group player to Super Rugby star.’
It is fairly well known that Etzebeth is a member of the Etzebeth clan that became part of WP rugby folklore in a previous era. Eben’s uncles Cliffie and Skattie were responsible for terrorising many an opposing player and there is seldom a rugby gathering in the Cape where at least one story about the exploits of the legendary tough men is not told.
But growing up in Goodwood and attending one of the less fashionable schools had its drawbacks, and had it not been for former Springbok lock Hennie Bekker spotting Etzebeth’s giant form while helping out at a training session at Tygerberg High in 2008, the Stormers would not now be benefiting from Etzebeth’s thunderous contributions.
‘I was preparing to coach the Tygerberg 1st XV when I saw this massive bloke running on the other field with the B or C team,’ recalls Bekker, who is in charge of WP’s youth development and the general manager at their School of Excellence. ’I was told he was one of the Etzebeths. I was immediately interested, particularly because he was such a massive physical specimen. But he was playing centre, and had also played wing. He was just messing around in the backline. He didn’t appear to be taking his rugby particularly seriously. He seemed to enjoy the game without having any expectation.
‘I called him over and we had a chat. I invited him to attend my WP elite squad training sessions. He was in Grade 11 at the time. I told him he had to make a pact with me that he would work really hard, otherwise he would just be wasting my time. I also told him he would have to switch to lock and that would be the only position he would play from then on.’
Etzebeth made the promise and Bekker reckons he more than delivered on it.
‘I was immediately impressed with his dedication. He seemed determined to make something out of the opportunity he was being offered. There was no doubt from the outset that he had immense raw promise,’ recalls Bekker. ‘He had all the attributes for a lock in terms of strength, but he was also very skilful, probably because he started out playing in the backs. For a big guy he was surprisingly athletic. Most importantly, there was a hardness that I liked.’
Given the reputation built up by his uncles in their years playing club rugby in the province, it would be understandable if there was an expectation that the young Etzebeth would be a chip off the old block. Jacques Hanekom, chief executive of the WP Rugby Institute, has detected that there is a tendency for people to assume that Etzebeth will be a wild man.
‘People expect him to be a loose cannon but that is not the case at all. When he was at the institute we had no problems with him on or off the field,’ says Hanekom. ‘In actual fact he’s quite calculated on the field. He thinks about what he is doing; he has the right mixture of calculation and aggression. I don’t foresee him becoming like Bakkies Botha in terms of running into disciplinary problems later on in his career.
‘When he was with us he was a reserved kid, you could almost say he was quite shy, but he was extremely focused and dedicated. When a kid comes to us he has to tick certain boxes related to performance and attitude on and off the field. Eben ticked them all. We knew we were working with the full Monty.’
Bekker concurs with Hanekom’s view, saying that he is sure Etzebeth will be one of those who keeps his feet on the ground regardless of how quickly he progresses through the ranks.
‘In his matric year he played for WP Schools. That was 2009, just one year after he was moved to lock. But through that he remained very level-headed, and he knows his progress has been down to sheer hard work. When he was injured last year he worked hard on bulking up, and this year we are seeing the results.’
One of his uncles, Allie, remembers Eben as a sports-mad kid who through his years at Goodwood Park Primary School and later at Tygerberg always seemed to have a ball in his hand and was constantly playing or practising sport.
‘He was a good athlete, excelling in the 100m and 200m, but rugby was always a big passion in the family after what Cliffie and Skattie achieved as players,’ says Allie.
‘He was really fast for a big guy, and that was why he played centre and wing for most of his school career. He was one heck of a difficult guy to stop when he had the ball in his hand. He was always such a pleasant kid too, and he has a real soft heart. The Bulls and the Sharks were keen to get him to sign with them. They made good offers, but Eben decided he wanted to stay in Cape Town and look after his mom.’
When Etzebeth attended the WP Rugby Institute he was part of what Nel called the institution’s master class.
‘I remember saying once before that Francois Hougaard was the cream of what we produced in terms of natural attributes and professional attitude. But in 2010 we had several players who were all in the same category as Hougaard,’ says Nel.
‘Eben, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe, Nizaam Carr, Scarra Ntubeni … we had a phenomenal pack of forwards and they all have something special about them. Eben still had to mature but he had fantastic results in all the tests we conducted on him. The only problem I can recall is that he was just so damn big that it was impossible for the other guys to pick him up in the lineouts.’
Funnily enough, Etzebeth’s size has been responsible for the one small headache that his elevation to Super Rugby has caused for Stormers forward coach Matt Proudfoot.
‘I’ve had to work with Eben on a few things at scrum time as it is never easy to get a guy who stands over 2m tall to fit easily into a scrum unit. He has a lot of body that needs to be put into position,’ says Proudfoot.
But that small problem aside, you won’t hear Proudfoot complaining about the size in the Stormers second row, where Andries Bekker also stands over 2m tall. Proudfoot sees the ease with which Etzebeth has adapted to senior rugby as a triumph for the systems that have been put in place at WP since 2008.
‘Eben has been coming to the High Performance Centre for quite a while now so it’s not a new environment for him and it has helped him fit comfortably into the top team.’
Proudfoot sounded an ominous warning to future Etzebeth opponents who might think they were seeing anything close to the finished product.
‘There is so much more he still has to show us. For a start we haven’t really had to use him in the lineout. He is an outstanding lineout forward and when there is a game when Duane [Vermeulen] and Andries are shut down we will see the full extent of his repertoire. He is also going to come more into his own as a ball-carrier. He is an awesome athlete.
‘He’s growing in confidence, which is the result of being backed in the pre-season and playing in all the warm-up games. As a young player he had to be physically up to the challenge. He went through that barrier and it enabled him to prove to himself that he could not only survive at senior level but also excel there. One of the great things about him is that he is proactive in his decision-making.’
‘He can play No 4 and No 5, but he is not a light jolly jumper-type player that has become the norm in modern rugby,’ says Dobson. ‘Matt is working hard on getting him to be a fusion of the two. Not many locks can be both. Eben is not as dirty as some locks who fulfil the role he does but he is also no angel. Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t like to cross him on the field. In fact, I wouldn’t play against him at all. He’s scary.’
– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine.