Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth underlined his importance to the Stormers cause with superb physicality in his side’s win over the Chiefs at Newlands on Saturday.
With the game just over a minute old, the Cape Town-based outfit’s enforcer was in the thick of things in an off-the-ball scuffle between several players which laid down the gauntlet for his team’s physical onslaught for the rest of the match.
And that incident’s importance should not be underestimated especially the psychological effect it had on his second row rivals from the Chiefs – All Blacks duo Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird, who went missing during the rest of the match.
Retallick, in particular, seemed rattled after he received special treatment from Etzebeth in that early skirmish which would set the tone during the rest of what turned out to be arguably the best Super Rugby match so far this year.
The Bok second-row’s approach was refreshingly old school and seemed pre-meditated as Retallick looked a pale shadow of the player which won him a place in Planet Rugby’s Team of the Week feature on four out of six occasions ahead of Saturday’s clash.
The All Black beanpole, who won World Rugby’s Player of the Year award in 2014, did try gallantly to get up to speed as the match – which the Stormers won 34-26 – progressed, but he was not his usual self especially in the tight exchanges. In fact, there were several occasions when he was spotted just hanging around the fringes of the rucks and mauls making little or no impact.
This filtered through to the other players in the Chiefs’ pack who seemed shell-shocked by the ferocity of their opponents’ onslaught up front.
By contrast, Etzebeth and his forward counterparts seemed to relish the physical nature of the game as they were winning most of the collisons.
Etzebeth’s participation against the Chiefs was a massive boost for the Stormers, after he passed a fitness test and fellow Bok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit failed one on the morning of the match.
The way he put his body on the line it was understandable that he was replaced after 50 minutes and the Stormers’ rookie second row pairing of Chris van Zyl and Jan de Klerk deserve plenty of credit for continuing with the fine work at the coalface of their side’s forward effort during that game’s final half-hour.
In the end, the Stormers’ impressive physicality paid dividends and their victory was sweet revenge after they suffered a humiliating 60-21 loss to the Chiefs at the same venue in last year’s quarter-final.
With much being said about the fact that the men from the Cape will be playing against New Zealand and not Australian teams this year, Saturday’s result should have huge mental benefits for them when they head on their tour to New Zealand where they will face tough assignments against the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.
Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck is relishing the prospect of taking on those sides and believes the best is yet to come from his troops.
“If we want to do well in this competition we are going to have to play like this every week,” he said.
“The guys realise that they have to play at this intensity in every game.
“It is about hard learnings again and improving again.”