Cape Town – The legendary Victor Matfield, South
Africa’s most capped international with 127 appearances for the Springboks
until his retirement after RWC 2015, was already 28 by the time he played his
44th Test against Wales in Cardiff in November.
What’s the significance of that reasonably
arbitrary-looking caps figure?
It is a reminder of just how much younger
Eben Etzebeth, an emerging giant of the Bok second row, will be when, aged 24,
he exceeds that figure at the outset of his fifth international season for the
country against Ireland at Newlands on Saturday.
Etzebeth, who was a callow but confident 20
when he began his Bok career against England at Kings Park in 2012, will earn
his 45th cap (and 42nd start) when the Boks take to the
field for the first of three Tests against the Irish.
In doing so, he will also be – if the Bok
starting line-up is roughly as expected when revealed on Thursday – the fifth
most experienced player in green and gold on the day despite his astonishing
Ahead of him in caps terms will probably be
only Tendai Mtawarira (75 up to now), JP Pietersen (66), captain Adriaan
Strauss (54) and Pat Lambie (50).
All are older than Etzebeth and some
greatly so: Mtawarira and Strauss are both 30, and Pietersen 29 for a few more
weeks until mid-July.
Of course it helps statistically that,
under new head coach Allister Coetzee, the Boks have “moved on”, at least for
the time being in some instances, from such stalwarts as Bismarck and Jannie du
Plessis, Morne Steyn, Jean de Villiers and Fourie du Preez, and are missing at
present the services of both Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger.
But it is still remarkable to think how far
Etzebeth has come in his international development in such a short space of
We could debate until the cows come home
whether the muscular, Stormers-based enforcer may eventually threaten
Matfield’s record tally; the big thing in the retired Bulls icon’s favour is
that he persevered at Test level until the quite unusual age of 38, after
starting out at 24 in 2001.
Bear in mind that Etzebeth’s role as a
front lock is by modern definition a more physically taxing one and he may have
decided -- or been forced by injury or other factors -- to quit long before he
reaches such an advanced age.
But if he happens to be active at Test
level even for a more realistic, healthy chunk of the next 10 years or so until
he reaches 34 – considering his four-year head start on Matfield in debut terms
– then he might feasibly threaten the lineout maestro’s appearances landmark.
Already Etzebeth looks a very strong bet to
go past the 85-caps figure achieved by the second most capped Bok second-rower,
Bakkies Botha, who was three years older at 23 when he began his Bok journey.
Combining brute power with standout
athleticism, and probably already among the top four or five premier locks in
the world, Etzebeth will not easily be dislodged from a regular Bok berth if he
stays in robust health – and that despite South Africa traditionally being such
a renowned “lock factory”.
He has also been fortunate to largely dodge
inevitable medical setbacks when on Bok duty; most of his injuries requiring a
few weeks on the sidelines have tended to occur at Super Rugby level over the
The big fellow gave an embarrassed chuckle
when asked on the SuperRugby
Afrikaans rugby chat show on Monday night how he felt about the responsibility
of suddenly being a senior figure in the Boks ranks.
“Well, there are still more capped players
around like Adriaan, who is an unbelievable captain, and people like Pat,
Beast, Duane (Vermeulen) and Francois Louw – those are all senior guys.
“I look up to them as good role models and
I try to bring my bit as well, to the best of my ability.”
Etzebeth said it was a “great privilege” to
hook up once more with new national coach Coetzee: “I worked with Allister for
some four years at the Stormers and am now lucky to have another chance … I
know a bit about his thought processes.”
He also reemphasised that his
much-publicised dust-up with Bok lock colleague Lood de Jager during a Super
Rugby derby two Saturdays back was a thing of the past.
“There are no issues! These disputes happen
in a game and what happens on the field stays there; all is forgiven and
“He’s a good friend of mine and we had a
nice meal out together yesterday (Sunday).”
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing