RYAN VREDE, in Dublin with the Boks, speaks to Bok coach Heyneke Meyer and Rassie Erasmus about Eben Etzebeth.
Meyer and Erasmus agree the challenges Etzebeth will face on the Springboks’ European tour will refine him and elevate him to a new level of potency.
Others have struggled to make it out of the shadow of recently departed Springbok legends – Andries Bekker continues to be haunted by Victor Matfield’s legacy, Francois Hougaard has been frustratingly slow in filling the void left by Fourie du Preez – but Etzebeth has established himself as a prototype, not a surrogate for Bakkies Botha.
Having won the Players Player of the Year and Forward of the Year at the recent Western Province awards, the 21-year-old went on to scoop the Young Player of the Year at the SA Rugby awards last week, only being denied the top prize by Bryan Habana’s throwback season. In his rookie year he has established himself as one of the best in his position. Some would argue that he is indeed the pre-eminent No 4 in the game.
Etzebeth is, however, still undoubtedly raw, but former Springbok flank Erasmus, who now performs the dual role of SA Rugby’s general manager of high performance and technical analyst for the Springboks, asserts that his growth will be aided by unique tests in the next three weeks against Ireland, Scotland and England.
‘The northern hemisphere tour will be a little out of his comfort zone,’ Erasmus told keo.co.za. ‘There is a massive emphasis on set phases, which isn’t the case in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. Some of the toughest Tests I’ve played were against Ireland. That match in particular will be good for him, simply because of how confrontational they will be.
‘How he responds there will tell us a lot about this kid. He has already dealt with everything that has been thrown at him like a seasoned pro. This tour will make him even better.’
Meyer has been lavish in his praise of Etzebeth, recently suggesting that his presence precludes Botha from selection in the squad (he explained Botha wouldn’t start ahead of him and is not an impact player). In informal discussions with me Meyer has noted that Etzebeth emphatically meets all his criteria of a great Test player – power, speed, size, position specific skill, mental strength and coachability – and believes his form has been central to the success of a young pack.
Meyer wishes he could have more time with the young second rower.
‘I’d be desperate to have him every day in order to help him grow technically and mentally,’ he said. ‘I’ve effectively only been with him for nine weeks and in that time there has been limited personal interaction with him.
‘Eben was the Man of the Match in the Currie Cup final and most of that has to do with his lineout competing, which has gone to another level. Taking nothing away from the Western Province coaches, we’ve worked bloody hard on that area of his game. If he can make those gains in nine weeks, imagine what he can achieve in more time in the national group. He is an example of why I’m pushing hard for more time with the squad. The All Blacks’ players benefit a lot from their [central contracts] system.
‘But Eben still has some way to go in his game. No player of his quality has ever gone to Europe and not benefited. I don’t have any questions about his mental or technical ability, and I’m looking forward to the fruits of this tour for Eben.’
Erasmus cautioned Etzebeth against complacency, imploring him to remain focused and honest in his self-appraisal.
‘The challenge for him is to stay grounded. The moment you start believing good or bad press you lose focus. When you base your assessment of your game on what others are saying, and don’t personally recognise your weaknesses and address them, you are going to have a problem,’ he said.
‘I went through that and made those mistakes. He probably will too, which is not a bad thing provided he takes the lessons from that experience.’