Eben Etzebeth exhibited his all-around excellence in the Springboks’ narrow 19-16 defeat to Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The world champions and No 1-ranked team in the world slugged it out like heavyweight boxers with neither able to knockout their ultra-determined foe.
The Springboks, however, squandered a number of scoring opportunities whereas Ireland took theirs to edge a brutal war of attrition.
Here are our top three Springbok standouts:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Etzebeth is so much more than an enforcer and his talismanic display in Dublin underlined this.
In as brutal a Test match as they come, the second-row colossus lived up to being the face of the Springboks’ feared physicality, putting in dominant hits including taking Tadhg Furlong down like a grizzly and powering over the advantage line with ruthless aggression.
Most impressive, though, was the man mountain’s superhuman motor. It’s the most underappreciated aspect of Etzebeth’s athleticism and game, the driving force that enables him to sustain extraordinary strength, power, and energy for the full 80 minutes like he did at the Aviva Stadium.
The centurion ran a monstrous marathon, chasing and rebounding kicks on top of his tireless work in the trenches and set pieces. In addition, he showcased his rugby IQ and extended his work rate by circling around to make an added impact as a support runner.
His stunning try assist is a prime example of this hustle, and his underrated skill, as he drew three defenders and put Kurt-Lee Arendse in with a ball LeBron James would be jealous of.
All in all, he made pack-high carries and metres (12 for 73), and his 16 hits – at a 100% clip – were almost twice as many of the next-best Springbok.
Willie le Roux
The veteran visionary was a game-changer off the pine with his playmaking prowess. He transformed the blunt Springbok backline, slotting in at first receiver on attack and providing magic touches that earned him the reputation as South Africa’s assist king in his prime.
Le Roux almost architected a famous comeback, starting and finishing a wave of attack with a clever grubber that had the Irish scrambling before expertly putting Franco Mostert into a hole with the utility forward doing well to stretch over.
He had a hand in Arendse’s try as well, popping an offload off the ground to Etzebeth to conjure up his Midas touch.
Kriel and Pieter-Steph du Toit were both due big performances and delivered in Dublin. Kriel, especially, desperately needed to come good and the embattled midfielder produced his best performance in years.
Offensively, there was nothing to write home about. He was predictable and grubbered one down the gullet when there were numbers out wide, but he stepped up in a big way on defence.
His impeccable timing and explosiveness made him a heat-seeking missile that destroyed his targets, most memorably Robert Baloucoune and Johnny Sexton.
He did tremendous counter-rucking work, too, including playing a leading role in the turnover after Makazole Mapimpi’s crushing spot tackle on Hugo Keenan.