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Etzebeth closing in on Retallick

2015-09-29 07:05
Eben Etzebeth

Newcastle - If you’d known then what was to follow, you could justifiably have called it the calm before the storm.

Long before kick-off in Saturday’s World Cup match at Birmingham between South Africa and Samoa - two of the most physically uncompromising sides on the planet - the Springboks’ main pack “meanie” Eben Etzebeth sauntered alone out of the Villa Park tunnel and into the bright autumn sunshine, looking as though he didn’t have a care in the world.

Very few spectators had taken their seats yet in the tradition-steeped soccer stadium, but he was probably oblivious to any peripheral noise anyway, wearing headphones almost as impressive in size as the biceps straining the rims of his Bok training T-shirt.

He ambled to the middle of one of the 22-metre lines and stood there for a while, thumbing with cursory interest through the match-day magazine, before returning to the dressing room to prepare for battle.

(Perhaps coincidentally, his lock partner for the day, Victor Matfield, also emerged on his own, except that he strolled as far as the halfway line, his form of match-distractive pleasure to keep tossing a white cricket ball skyward and catching it comfortably; remember that the lineout king was a keen and decent cricketer once.)

Completely reversing his serene body language of some 45 minutes earlier, Etzebeth then began the Pool B fixture with even more appetite and fury than usual, positively clattering into the Samoan pack from the kick-off and immediately winning a breakdown penalty for his side.

The Boks clearly wanted, and needed, to issue an early statement of intent following that wretched display against Japan, and they had just got it from their young No 4 enforcer.

The tone for redemption had been set; you just sensed that the Boks were back in the “zone” and there was only going to be one result that day.

Etzebeth, in his 39th Test, oozed a multi-dimensional quality and industry from start to finish, whether it was making big, smothering tackles, adding considerable muscle to some fast-moving Springbok mauls, asserting himself off both teams’ throw-ins at the lineout, or surprising some of the neutral scribes in the press-box (but not too many of the South African ones) with the deftness and subtlety of his handling and peripheral awareness at times.

It was as near to a complete performance by a lock forward at Test level as you could imagine - and I have witnessed live - even if you take into account the not quite top-tier status of the opposition.

The great Frik du Preez, who will turn 80 next month, would have approved in the likely event he watched the game on television from his long-time farm base.

Several of the British Sunday broadsheets were not slow to pick up on Etzebeth’s majesty, with the match report in The Observer fittingly describing how the Stormers/WP man brought “mighty heft to proceedings”.

His unwavering, body-on-the-line commitment had been manna from heaven for the Boks against opponents whose own best fortunes are derived from a frighteningly physical intensity.

If Samoa can’t achieve supremacy in that department - and they didn’t, with Etzebeth and company such a stern counter - their limitations are more acutely exposed. And they were. The scoreboard didn’t lie.

It was the 23-year-old’s striking, proper baptism to World Cup rugby if you don’t take into account his curtailed, 12-minute appearance off the bench, not yet at fullest fitness after a niggle, against the Japanese (perhaps not the worst match for him to largely miss, in retrospect?).

If South Africa can get anything like that bristling degree of energy out of Etzebeth against Scotland at St James’ Park here this Saturday, they ought to be well on the way to another triumph and a very firm foot in the quarter-finals door.

He should not get, and will not expect, to get everything his own way if, as anticipated, his rival at No 4 for the Scots is big Richie Gray, the British and Irish Lions second-rower who will earn his 50th Test cap.

Gray has some prior experience of going nose to nose with Bok lock toughies, and even winning on one such occasion - the 2010 mudbath at Murrayfield when now-retired Bakkies Botha did front lock duty in a 21-17 reverse for the tourists.

Yet Etzebeth is widely acknowledged as being back playing a personal calibre of rugby in recent weeks and months that probably puts him on a more elite level ... quite feasibly, one only occupied right now by a single other second-rower in the shape of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick.

There are several similarities between the pair, not least being born only five months apart in 1991.

Their tale of the tape is darned-near identical, too: 2,04m, and around 118kg.

Both are classic, get-stuck-in No 4s, fierce at the coalface but also blessed with pronounced athletic abilities, and they will comfortingly be “around” for their respective frontline rugby nations for many years to come if injuries intervene only sporadically.

There is generally precious little between them when they enthrallingly encounter each other, even if the New Zealander is rather more familiar with ending up on the winning side.

For those who may have forgotten, Retallick currently wears the mantle of official World Rugby Player of the Year, a title that will come up for grabs again after RWC 2015.

Without suggesting for a split second that the All Black was somehow “lucky” to earn the award late last year, it probably helped that his side, the defending RWC champions and ongoing leaders of the global pack, were all-conquering standard-bearers.

Etzebeth’s Boks, by contrast, have been all too fitful in the results column during 2015, and even a bit before it.

But hopefully that won’t mean that he is prejudiced in any claims he may stake to land the honour himself, whether it is this year or beyond.

A rousing maiden World Cup would help, and he has made the right kind of start ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing. Rob is attending the Bok pool phase of RWC 2015 to provide news and analysis for Sport24 readers.

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