Allister Coetzee has got most things right in 2017 - none more so than the appointment of Eben Etzebeth to succeed the injured Warren Whiteley as Springbok captain.
Etzebeth has been a revelation as Springbok captain and it is the most inspired, confident and composed I have seen him 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.
Former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer publicly anointed Etzebeth as a better lock than Bakkies Botha at the same age. I thought it was the wrong statement to make and I also thought it was premature. Heyneke back then also likened Johan Goosen to All Blacks icon Dan Carter, in terms of potential as a Test flyhalf.
I don’t agree with comparisons between the new kid and the old one because it’s apples versus pears. I also don’t see the point or need to compare a player of one era to another.
Personally I find the comparisons an insult to the veteran who has been there and done it. If anything, wait until the kid with all the potential has lasted 10 years in the Test arena and then make an assessment.
Botha was the rock upon which so much as built at the Boks and Bulls. He took that presence to Toulon and he will forever be as revered in the south of France as he is north of Pretoria.
Botha, affectionately dubbed the 'Enforcer' in South Africa, was nicknamed the 'Butcher' in France because his opponents invariably left the Stade Mayole bleeding.
Botha’s last season of Test rugby dovetailed with Etzebeth’s formative Test years and the two spent a season in each other’s company as squad and Test match team-mates. Botha raved about Etzebeth and the younger big guy was awed by Botha’s mentorship.
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.
Etzebeth’s career - like any player’s - should only be analysed the day he calls time on rugby. To want to rate him now is to dismiss that in the next five years he could be even better. It is to do him a disservice.
The biggest compliment to give the current Bok captain is to simply acknowledge his contribution as a leader and player of an ever-improving Springbok set-up.
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 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.
Kolisi and Kriel have flourished as loose-forwards, individually and in tandem, but for me the biggest revelation has been Etzebeth’s captaincy. It’s to be celebrated and, I'd like to think, not debated.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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