Eben Etzebeth will become the seventh and youngest player to rack up 100 caps for the Springboks when he runs out against Wales on Saturday.
The gargantuan lock joins a prestigious group of players who achieved the milestone ahead of him, including Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, Tendai Mtawarira, John Smit, Jean de Villiers and Percy Montgomery.
The 30-year-old is arguably one of the finest to have come from the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of second-row talent produced in South Africa since readmission.
Early Test call-up
Etzebeth made his professional debut for the Stormers in 2012 straight off of a Varsity Cup win with the University of Cape Town’s Ikey Tigers in 2011 and was drafted into the Springboks squad at the first time of asking, making his Test debut against England on June 9, 2012.
The veteran would only make his debut for Western Province later that year after playing at Super Rugby and Test level, making for a unique pathway as most players in the system earn their professional debuts with Western Province before progressing through the other levels.
The sheer size of Etzebeth and robust nature drew early comparisons to his predecessor, the great Bakkies Botha. In his youth, the Springbok was boisterous at worst and imposing at best, always in and amongst quarrels on the field but rarely doing much more than jersey gripping and grinning down the opposition’s throat.
He had all the makings of a Test veteran, and soon details of how strong the monstrous man actually is emerged from the Stormers camp, with Etzebeth bench pressing up to 175kg whilst using specially ordered 79kg dumbbells during his gym sessions.
Before long, the superstar was a household name in South Africa and the 2013 Test campaign confirmed his arrival on the international stage, where he was nominated for World Player of the Year in only his second season.
Greatness seemed inevitable for Etzebeth, who had more Test appearances by the end of 2014 than he did for the Stormers and Western Province combined. However, by this point, the number four Springbok jersey was solely fitted to the 2.03 metre, 122 kg colossus.
Becoming a leader
At the tender age of 24, Etzebeth broke the record for the youngest player to reach 50 Test caps for the Springboks before becoming the 59th Springboks captain in 2017, a fitting role for a player of continuously growing stature.
The captaincy did not stick for long, but he began to mature, learning how to impose himself on the game without the risk of being carded. Nevertheless, Etzebeth somehow managed to maintain that intimidating, raw edge of Botha that would leak cards and modernise the role to suit the game’s evolution.
The arrival of coaching pair Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber only made Etzebeth’s role in the squad more crucial as he became one of the fundamental players in the system due to his line-out prowess physicality, leadership and presence in the game.
In 2019, the Springboks won both the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, a feat never achieved before in the same year, with Etzebeth on the front lines of battle, leading the quest to dominate each and every opposition the team encountered physically.
The Springboks’ schedule was heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic meaning the South Africans were very undercooked for the watered-down 2021 British & Irish Lions series. However, Etzebeth proved his worth as a member of the leadership group that subsequently powered the Springboks to a comeback series win.
Destined to be the greatest Springbok ever?
At this point, Etzebeth had won every major trophy he could at Test level, adding to his already rich legacy.
Fast-track to 2022, and he is one of the most respected players worldwide, both on and off the field. Etzebeth is a once-in-a-generation talent who has shown remarkable longevity.
As the Springbok legend enters rarefied air to join some warriors of the game, it is important to celebrate a unique career geared towards Test rugby with club rugby falling away in the foreground.
Etzebeth is already one of the greatest Springbok players to ever don the jersey, and he will continue to grow his legacy perhaps to unprecedented heights.
South Africa v Wales preview
Planet Rugby previews the series deciding third Test between South Africa and Wales at the Cape Town Stadium.