Eben Etzebeth’s captaincy of the Springboks should be celebrated rather than debated.
Worcester Director of Rugby and former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold, in a Sport24 article on the 2017 Springboks, believes Siya Kolisi should be the Bok captain in Warren Whiteley’s absence.
My view is that if it isn’t broken don’t try and fix it.
And the Boks of 2017, post Whiteley’s enforced unavailability aren’t broken.
My Sport24 column opted to reflect on the strength of the collective leadership of Etzebeth, Kolisi and Lions captain Jaco Kriel. But it’s Etzebeth who has added to his already imposing stature since being given the captaincy.
For me, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has got most things right in 2017 – none more so than the appointment of Etzebeth as stand-in captain.
It is the most inspired, confident and composed I have seen Etzebeth in his Test career.
Etzebeth is a beast of a rugby player and he is to the tight five what Sonny Bill Williams is to the midfield.
Etzebeth, like Williams, is a freakish athlete. He is a physical specimen of note and something very special as a rugby player.
Etzebeth flourished in his first two seasons as a Springbok but 2015 and 2016 were good without ever being dominant. He battled injury and also a national team in disarray and down on everything.
I remember seeing an image of All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick giving Etzebeth a big hand off in the 2016 Test in Durban. It just looked so wrong. Retallick rightly is considered the best lock in the game but in that game he dwarfed Etzebeth in delivery and it was no surprise when Etzebeth was subbed 50 minutes into the Test.
This year it’s been so different. Etzebeth, with the additional responsibility of captaining the Springboks, has grown in stature and added a calm to his colossal physical frame. He is leading by example and it’s him giving the opposition the ‘do as you told’. It’s him bouncing opponents in the tackle. It’s him making the pass, creating space through soft hands and effective offloads in the tackle. It’s him taking charge and turning the potential of being a great into performances that have been great.
Some brilliant players are at odds with leadership roles and a minority thrives on being forced to added maturity to any natural maverick instincts. Etzebeth is of the latter leaders. He, by his own admission, loves being the captain. He describes it as the most enjoyable period in a Bok Test career that has already passed 50 Tests. He told the media that he feels it is starting to come naturally.
Coetzee has praised Etzebeth’s captaincy and said that when the Bok captain talks the players listen. It’s the ultimate accolade for any leader.
Etzebeth’s play in the five Tests this year has mirrored that of a player finally content that he has nothing to prove. The seeming indifference of a year ago could also have been a case of an exceptional player trying too hard in a losing cause and because of this looking even worse and more out of sorts than the mortals alongside him.
Etzebeth, as Coetzee said, is also the beneficiary of a very strong leadership group in Siya Kolisi, Beast Mtawarira and Jaco Kriel. All three are Super Rugby captains and all three are in-form and have consistently been at the forefront of the Springboks’ performance this year.
Whiteley’s return will further strengthen this leadership group but in his enforced absence we’ve seen a quality to Etzebeth that we may have believed to be there but never got to see.
Captaincy has made Etzebeth a better player and added a dimension to his on-field contribution.