Johannesburg - It was a depressingly familiar sight for anyone who has marvelled at the sheer physical specimen that is Eben Etzebeth. There he was, the player with the biggest biceps in world rugby, flexing his “enforcer” muscles in the Stormers’ Super Rugby game against the Lions.
Last year, it was Lood de Jager with whom he got into a needless tiff. Last weekend, it was young Ruan Ackermann who got the treatment.
As a wannabe bruiser, no one can blame young Ackers for seeking a tête-à-tête with supposedly the toughest breker doing the rounds, but isn’t Etzebeth tired of the crazy-eyed routine, which almost always sees him pursue every off-the-ball incident?
When the dust had settled in the clash between South Africa’s two best sides in the competition, Etzebeth had been outplayed by a workaday Andries Ferreira in a game won by the Lions.
No disrespect to Ferreira, but the rest of us expect more from Etzebeth, a player who has long been touted to potentially be better than the great Bakkies Botha.
In his partnership with Victor Matfield, Botha touched legendary status as he went on to win three Currie Cups, three Super Rugby titles, two Tri-Nations trophies, a World Cup, the French Top 14 and two European championships.
But while Etzebeth has more in his locker than Botha ability wise, he runs the risk of not even matching the older man’s achievements in the game.
Sure, he’ll probably get more than Botha’s 85 Test caps because he’s already on 54 caps at 25-years-old.
Etzebeth will also probably make more money – what with those riches more readily available to South African players these days, thanks to the European and Japanese markets.
But if he insists on being so easily riled by the opposition, he may forever want for the kind of achievements players aim for.
By the looks of it, whenever there is a significant game, Etzebeth gets sidetracked in macho sideshows. Opponents seem to deliberately target him, knowing his temper will always hold sway over his common sense in the heat of the moment.
To be sure, Etzebeth is not a dirty player when compared with a younger Botha, whose rap sheet included “attacking the face”, a euphemism for eye-gouging, alleged biting and stamping. But Etzebeth’s outbursts of temper have earned him stints in the sin-bin, which will cost South Africa Test matches.
Fritter away goodwill
This is a pity because, when it comes to ability, Etzebeth should be dining at world rugby’s top table instead of still trading on potential.
At 2.04m tall and weighing 117kg, he may be the size of a small mountain, but he has kept the athleticism of the centre he once was as a youngster.
So, imagine his input into a match if he had the game smarts, calm and maturity of a Maro Itoje, Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock.
The irony of a story like this is that Etzebeth is actually having a pretty handy season.
When you look at his numbers against both Retallick and Whitelock, they’re much better. However, it is prudent to note that, in true All Blacks fashion, they are likelier to peak later in the season.
In fact, Etzebeth’s role in the Stormers’ win against the Chiefs was massive when his likelihood to actually play was in doubt.
But then he had to fritter away that goodwill with a below-par performance and yet another misguided show of strength against the Lions, when he should have been backing it up like all the greats do.
Botha may have had the luxury of having the likes of Matfield, John Smit, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez – not only greats but leaders as well – around him, but Etzebeth has to realise that, in the current Boks environment, he is the leadership.
This means the time for schoolboy antics is over.
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