South Africa: Time for Eben Etzebeth to receive the recognition he deserves

Eben Etzebeth SA v Wales 2022 - PA.jpg Credit: Alamy
Eben Etzebeth SA v Wales 2022 - PA.jpg Credit: Alamy

While all the finalists for SA Rugby’s coveted Player of the Year prize for 2022 are worthy of their nominations, one of them would really be a popular winner after shining for his country and that man is behemoth Springboks second-row Eben Etzebeth.

The Bok enforcer’s contribution over a 10-year period is well known but despite playing consistently well during the past decade, his efforts in green and gold are yet to be recognised with South Africa’s top individual award.

No success after six nominations

In fact, he was previously nominated as SA Rugby’s Player of the Year on six occasions – in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2021 – but, remarkably, failed to win it each time.

The 31-year-old burst onto the scene the age of 20 in 2012 – in his first season of Super Rugby for the Stormers – and displayed his immense strength when he smashed through a tackle from Sharks and Springboks hooker Bismarck du Plessis in their semi-final in Cape Town.

Although Du Plessis was himself another hard man of South African rugby and arguably the world’s best hooker at the time, there was only one winner in that showdown as a strong carry from Etzebeth left the 2007 World Cup winner flat on his back on the Newlands turf.

Later that same year, Etzebeth also made his Test debut when he lined up for the Springboks against England in the first of a three-Test series, in Johannesburg.

Since then, Etzebeth has been one of the first names on the Bok teamsheet for the three-time world champions’ coaches Heyneke Meyer, Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber and it is therefore no surprise that earlier this year he became the youngest man ever to play in 100 Tests for South Africa.

Speaking of which, the Sharks second-row’s form at Test level in 2022 has been nothing short of outstanding and it was surprising when he was not one of the nominees for the World Rugby Player of the Year prize last year – an award which he was also nominated for in 2013 but lost out to All Blacks number eight Kieran Read.

Looking at his competition for 2022’s SA Rugby Player of the Year award, Etzebeth is up against tough opposition in Lukhanyo Am, Siya Kolisi, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Frans Malherbe. All four of the aforementioned players deserve their nominations with Am in excellent form until a knee injury ruled him out of the Boks’ 2022 Test campaign during the Rugby Championship, while 2021’s winner Kolisi, Arendse and Malherbe have also caught the eye with brilliant performances for the Boks throughout their recent international campaign.

However, Etzebeth has been ever-present for the Springboks in 2022, featuring in every one of the 13 Tests they played in during the year of which 12 of those saw him lining up in the starting line-up, with his only Test as a replacement being in the Autumn Nations Series encounter against Italy in Genoa when he joined the action early in the second half.

Of those 13 Tests, Etzebeth played for a full 80 minutes on nine occasions and if one adds that with the time he came off early in games or joined the fray as a replacement against the Azzurri, he played for a combined total of 962 minutes of the 1040 minutes the Boks were in action in their 13 Tests in 2022.

Those are remarkable statistics and a sign that he was a real stalwart for his country. His no-nonsense approach as the Boks’ main enforcer, and his tireless work in the tight phases, are attributes which makes life easier for his team-mates at Test level, but it’s not just his industrious work at the coalface of South Africa’s forward effort which has caught the eye. He has also impressed as a ball carrier, made his mark with superb defensive statistics and added some deft touches to his game which has made him more of an all-round player at club level and in the Test arena.

Striking images

Thinking back to Etzebeth’s displays during the Boks’ Test campaign in 2022, there are some striking images which are burnt into my memory. Images of him giving everything for the cause.

Think of Etzebeth’s hit on Kieran Hardy in the third and deciding Test against Wales in Cape Town, the fiery exchange with Wallabies prop Allan Alalaatoa in Brisbane, his brilliant offload to Arendse, who crossed for a deserved try against Ireland in Dublin and his superb all-round effort for 80 minutes against England at Twickenham.

The only real blot on his copybook was a yellow card during the Boks’ final Rugby Championship Test against Argentina in Durban but that negative pales into significance when compared to the positives his produced in 2022.

In closing, Etzebeth was a colossus for South Africa during their 2022 international campaign and after so many years where he came close to being recognised for his outstanding play, only to fall short at the final hurdle, the time has arrived for him to receive his flowers.

READ MORE: Springboks: SA Rugby president Mark Alexander says ‘it’s sad to see Siya go’

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