MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day newspaper, applauds the talents of Eben Etzebeth and Pat Lambie and writes the Sharks are the best domestic team in South Africa.
Eben Etzebeth made his Western Province Currie Cup debut a fortnight ago and is eligible to play in Saturday’s U21 final. He’s still a pup in terms of provincial experience and age but he’s definitely no pup in terms of performance.
He was colossal against the Lions in Western Province’s dramatic last minute Currie Cup semi-final victory. He commands presence, which explains the remarkable elevation from Varsity Cup player in 2011 to an eight-Test Springbok in 2012. A unique breed of player simply has it. Etzebeth is the newest international member of this club, and if he stays injury free he could become the most dominant of second rowers in the next decade.
He thrives on responsibility, especially when the crunch moments demand the tough to take the lead. We saw it in Super Rugby, most notably in the final 20 minutes when the Stormers repelled a Lions fightback in Johannesburg to win. Etzebeth towered above the rest that night and at the same venue, against the provincial Lions he effected a result of similar significance for Western Province players, who earlier in the year had played in the guise of the Stormers.
Etzebeth is among the 10 nominations for South Africa’s Player of the Year and while my preference is the revitalised and rejuvenated Western Province, Stormers and Springbok wing Bryan Habana, a more appropriate reward for Etzebeth would be the Rookie of the Year.
He plays with the authority of an old head, but the emotional maturity should not disguise his youthfulness. He is also an enforcer who lacks the crassness of a thug. He can impose his physicality without resorting to cheap shots, which is refreshing. There is more Brad Thorn to his persona than Bakkies Botha because he has the calmness a young Botha’s personality did not accommodate. Botha had mongrel but Etzebeth’s aggression is measured. The old dog can certainly teach Etzebeth a trick or two, which is why I’d select both for the end-of- year tour, but the emotional maturity and seemingly contentment of Etzebeth is unique among young international second rowers.
Etzebeth’s influence was massive in the lineout take and subsequent 20m maul that crushed the Lions in the last play of the game. Lions’ supporters would rightly have cursed his presence on Saturday night, but as South Africans they will have many a Saturday in which they’ll celebrate the fact he’s a South African who plays for the Springboks.
Another youngster who plays with the maturity of a veteran is Pat Lambie. National coach Heyneke Meyer has been reluctant on Lambie. Why? Who knows?
Lambie has shown his class as a person through a winter of frustration at national level. Picked as a bench warmer and only viewed as a fullback option he never spoke out against the coach and never threatened of a move to French or English club rugby. He spoke only when given a chance to start at flyhalf for the Sharks and his speaking came by way of performance. He was more commander than cavalier against the Bulls in the Sharks 20-3 semi-final victory.
He looked more Dan Carter than Quade Cooper in controlling the semi-final, which is a compliment of his class.
Lambie, two seasons ago, was brilliant in the Sharks’ Currie Cup final win against Western Province, but his versatility has been to his detriment. He can play 10, 12, 13 and 15 and he wouldn’t be out of place on the wing, but because of this quality he has become a jack of all trades when he has the potential to become the master of one.
Lambie really has been impressive at flyhalf in the most understated, yet effective manner. The hope is Meyer can review his earlier opinion that Lambie is a 15 and not a 10, and not fear misguided accusations that a change of opinion is because of a state of confusion.
Lambie, on the pending Bok tour, must get some game time at 10. Expect a big game from him in Durban on Saturday against Western Province. He’ll deliver because whenever he has been given an opportunity (not a 10-minute cameo role) the return has been a quality performance.
The Sharks were imposing and brutal against the Bulls and coach John Plumtree’s match 22 selection showed an understanding that play-off matches are determined more by the quality of the seven substitutes than the perceived pedigree of the starting XV.
The Sharks have been South Africa’s most consistent performer in Super Rugby and Currie Cup, with or without their current Springboks. They play the best rugby and they are South Africa’s best team. They will win the title on Saturday.