Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A funny thing is happening in this supposedly “southern softie” neck of the rugby woods.
Let’s face it, the failure of either Western Province or the Stormers to land a really major trophy for around a decade has often been blamed on the perceived absence of a hard edge to their packs in the period in question.
It is no coincidence that when Province were dominating the Currie Cup to an unprecedented degree in the mid-1980s - five consecutive successes between 1982 and 1986 - wily president Jan Pickard and company made sure the foundations would be laid quite genuinely from the “front”.
So the glory years coincided with the arrival from upcountry of such rugged, earthy specimens as Theuns Stofberg, Schalk Burger snr, Andre Markgraaff and Gert Smal to complement more home-grown hard-men like wine-farming tighthead prop Hempies du Toit and bellicose hooker Shaun Povey.
Newlands has had pockets of fire-in-the-belly specimens slightly more recently (someone like former Sharks front-ranker Robbie Kempson comes to mind), but tended to still labour under a suspicion, whether warranted or not, from elsewhere in the country that their pack comes up short for mongrel in crunch encounters.
So there has got to be some irony in the fact that, with South Africa’s premier pack “enforcer” Bakkies Botha - bred by the traditionally physical Bulls - now seemingly out of the Test picture and plying his slightly long-in-the-tooth trade in France, not just one but two No 4 locks of uncompromising disposition and great general promise have suddenly blossomed ... in the Stormers ranks.
It is already clear that, assuming both young men are fully fit, coach Allister Coetzee and his lieutenants - forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot must be especially gratified - will have a tough task throughout the Super Rugby campaign deciding between Rynhardt Elstadt and Eben Etzebeth as partner to stalwart No 5 lineout dynamo Andries Bekker.
The 22-year-old Elstadt, starting just his second full season in the competition, has had some injury woes in recent months and an ankle problem prevented him from taking his place in the second row for the opening fixture against the Hurricanes last Saturday.
It seemed a blow considering the undoubted impression he had made at the coalface in 2011 when the Stormers were SA conference winners.
But it simply allowed the even more rookie Etzebeth, still some way from turning 21, to be fast-tracked to a start.
For the record, he made such an immediate, striking impression in a collectively impressive forward effort that he would have been my choice for man of the match; instead it went a little contentiously, I thought, to Beauden Barrett, flyhalf for the rather ramshackle, spoiling and opportunistic visiting side which lost by 13 points.
And that despite a rank incomplete Stormers performance, with coach Coetzee admitting subsequently that it is his backline, far more, that needed the proverbial rocket up the posterior.
You didn’t need to be a scientist to work out with some rapidity that this “kid” (the coward in this 47-year-old scribe might be instantly tempted to reverently brand him Mister, mind you) is tough as nails and was amazingly unperturbed by the magnitude of the occasion.
He is also already big (2.03m and 117kg, the pen sketches say) and mobile into the bargain; imagining his physical dimensions two years or so up the drag is a scary thought.
Everything about Etzebeth on Saturday evening read “presence”; I was able to confirm that after watching the entire game a second time.
It is true that his lineout capability at this level was not tested to any great degree, because the Stormers do tend to go first to bankers like the towering Bekker and, nearer the back, Duane Vermeulen on their throw.
But in every other respect Etzebeth came through with flying colours. He worked hard, drove even harder when he got a ball-in-hand chance, and was presumably influential in a mostly stout scrum and first-rate, as ever, rolling maul.
Perhaps most illuminatingly, though, it did not take him long to be “thereabouts”, and then not surrendering an inch, whenever a tetchy contest threatened to veer toward bouts of argy-bargy.
Encouragingly, perhaps, he seemed able to keep his fuse from reaching the bomb package, something a player like Bakkies Botha has not always managed; he could be too blatant in his skulduggery and thus prone to referees’ cards.
But he seems a fitting, next-generation addition, all the same, to a theory in Cape Town’s gritty northern suburbs that “you don’t mess with an Etzebeth” if you value your health.
I am old enough to recall the exploits and tales (sporting, often, but perhaps not all for family reading ...) of a swollen family of Etzebeth brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, of whom Cliffie, a former WP lock and prop, was probably the most renowned.
He was a policeman and also prolific amateur wrestler, who probably suffered a little from being that unfortunate in-between height, so whether he was best suited to tighthead or the second row was always a matter for conjecture.
What was never in dispute about Eben Etzebeth’s uncle, however, was his toughness between the chalk and in life ... even if Alan Solomons, once coaching at UCT, would always insist that he “never thought of Cliffie as dirty” even in rugby clashes during turbulent political times between the students and police teams. (Keep in mind that Eben played Varsity Cup rugby for UCT only last year.)
In 2011, the presumably now advanced-age Cliffie was still racking up wrestling medals: Villagers Rugby Club, who he represented in the year they won the Easter Club Championships under Morne du Plessis’ leadership in 1980, lauded him in a news-letter for becoming a world freestyle veterans’ world champion.
Cliffie was close to another truculent, first league club-level tight forward brother, Skattie, who was shot dead in Belhar in 1993 while on debt-collection duty.
You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of either; for the benefit of Afrikaans readers, here is a fitting gem of an observation I unearthed off a blog: “Dis asof die Goodwood-sportklub se kroeg effe stiller raak toe Cliffie Etzebeth by die deur instap ...”
Interestingly, SA Under-21 product Eben is the son of Harry, one of the galaxy of brothers, but whose sporting achievements were apparently rather more modest.
But in the form either of Eben Etzebeth or the mauler for Montagu, Elstadt, the Stormers No 4 jersey looks like being in the hands of a notably no-nonsense customer for some time to come, which some pundits would call a breath of fresh air, in its own way.
The million-dollar question in the minds of cynics, however, may well be this: How long will a franchise notorious for surrendering talent hold onto both of them?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing