Prodigal powerhouse Eben Etzebeth owned Cape Town on Saturday as he celebrated his 100-Test milestone in fairy-tale fashion, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The seventh and youngest Springbok centurion was in vintage form to help power the Springboks to a 30-14 win over Wales in the series decider at Cape Town Stadium.
Having gone into the clash at 1-1, the world champions flexed their muscles when it mattered most, turning in a strong team performance to take the spoils.
Our top three Springbok standouts were:
If it had been a movie, it would have been considered too far-fetched…a too-good-to-be-true, romanticized sports story removed from reality and reserved for the silver screen.
The protagonist, a towering, supremely athletic, statuesque specimen playing a starring role in his country’s series-clinching triumph? Fair enough. Him doing so in his hometown in front of his family and friends and coming away with the Man of the Match award? Now it’s beginning to get a bit too Hollywood.
How about having his fiancé sing the national anthem to give him that extra bit of fire to produce a vintage performance? Now that’s too much, isn’t it? Yet, that’s the fairy-tale that came to life and no one deserved it more than Etzebeth, one of the truly great green and gold titans who’s given his blood, sweat, and tears to the Springboks over the last decade.
The 30-year-old second-rower was in beast mode, making storming carries including handing off Nick Tompkins and making an outside break, was a harbinger of pain on defence – highlighted by a rib-rattling hit on Kieran Hardy – and brought the energy and intensity throughout a sensational 60-minute shift.
When he’s old and grey, Etzebeth will be able to look back fondly and tell his grandkids about the glorious night that he was the king of Cape Town.
The Springbok pivot enjoyed a return to prominence in the Cape Town cauldron. That he did so in a do-or-die decider will be even more pleasing for the man himself and the coaches.
Flyhalf is the one area in which South Africa don’t have depth and the Tests in Pretoria and Bloemfontein compounded the concerns. First, it was Elton Jantjies’ shocker, and then Pollard, in his first Test as captain, flattered to deceive.
For the prodigious talent he is, Pollard has underperformed in the green and gold for a while. Perhaps due to psychological scars left by a serious knee injury, the veteran hasn’t been the general nor the dependable sharpshooter he was when he piloted the Springboks to World Cup glory in Japan.
From a personal and team perspective, it was vital for the 28-year-old to come good sooner rather than later and Saturday was that day. While he wasn’t at his brilliant best, he looked more assured, took the ball to the line, busted through a double tackle to score the opening try, and capped off a faultless goal-kicking performance with a 48-metre penalty to finish with a personal tally of 20 points.
The multi-skilled playmaker’s full value to the Springboks was once again on show as he seemingly shifted from fullback to centre when Cheslin Kolbe’s injury forced a reshuffling of the backline and produced touches of class throughout a commanding 80-minute performance.
Willemse created two try-scoring opportunities, the first through hustle and athleticism as he leapt over Dan Biggar to bag a box kick in Wales’ 22 and the second through skill as he freed up Damian de Allende with an outstanding offload that saw the midfielder stab a dangerous grubber through just before halftime.
The 24-year-old punched the pill up with aplomb, making a team-high 45 metres in 10 carries, saved the day twice with vital tackles on George North and Josh Adams, and added a thumping hit on opposite number Liam Williams for good measure.