He has only just turned 21 and already he is a household name – Eben Etzebeth. Paul Dobson looked at the school and varsity rugby days of the stand out Ikey second rower.
There are players who need no name – Morné, Naas and Bismarck. They had substantial careers, not just one season of top rugby, but what a season! He had several firsts – first Super Rugby match, first Test match and first match for Western Province, and they were in that order.
And he was young, and could still have played for Western Province Under-21 along with four other of their tight forwards – Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Skarra Ntubeni and Wilhelm van der Sluys who was on the bench.
The young giant is just three years out of school and his school remembers him well. There are some questions, like was he always a star, did he lag behind academically, was he a naughty boy?
And so we asked Gavin Beresford who had been at Hoërskool Tygerberg for some years and has been heavily involved in the school’s highly successful rugby. He was there throughout Eben’s high school career.
Eben was a late developer. When he arrived in Grade 8 (Std 6) at Tygerberg from Goodwood Park Primary School in 2005, he was small – 1,5m tall and weighing 56kg, a long way from 2.03m and 117kg of 2012. Between Grade 8 and Grade 11 Eben grew half a metre and 50kg!
Beresford said, he started growing in Grade 10 and when he came back to school in Grade 11 he had become, according to Beresford, a monster. He was no more a backline player and it did not take a genius to plonk the giant in the lock, though he was not used as a jumper in the line-out because he was too big to lift but was great at lifting teammates. In his last year at school, 2009 he was even taller and heavier at 125kg, in fact heavier than when he played for South Africa by which time his body fat was down to 7%.
In 2009, Eben went to the Craven Week for Western Province and, though he was not selected for SA Schools, he was chosen for SA Under-18 against France and Namibia, a team which included Johan Goosen, Siya Kolisi and Frans Malherbe. Beresford says Eben came back from that experience a better player. He said: “We saw it in his first match back at school when we played Bishops at Bishops and beat them 15-14 and the next week we beat Paarl Gim 12-10.” And Tygerberg ended ranked in the FNB Top 20.
Of course, Eben did not reach the heights he has reached just by growing. First he had the desire. He came from a family where rugby was important, especially in the Western Province where his uncles Cliffie, one of the world’s wittiest men, and Skattie had been great personalities in their playing days. Secondly, he had the determination, working hard, overcoming the ankle injury after the Junior World Championship, by working even harder. His success was no accident.
So his body and his rugby developed, but what about the rest of his school life?
It is easy to make a stereotype out of the big muscular young man from Epping who is being talked into being an ‘enforcer’ on the rugby field. But if you tried, you would be sure to get your stereotype wrong.
Beresford talked about his school career. He was throughout his school career in the top academic classes, well above average, and matriculated with a B aggregate, which would have got him into almost all university faculties, had he so chosen. Beresford said: “Eben was highly intelligent.”
Eben was not a prefect at school, always well mannered and respectful – ‘a very nice chap with a great sense of humour.’ His biggest misdemeanour was eating in class which he did as much as possible – understandable for a rapidly growing lad who was physically active in a demanding way.
Big head? No.
On the night of the 2011 Varsity Cup Final, where he played a starring role for the victorious UCT side, he asked Howard Kahn, the Western Province media man, to put in a good word with Dobbo, John Dobson, the Vodacom and Under-21 coach at Western Province, because he wanted to get into Dobbo’s Under-21 squad. He did not play much Under-21 rugby in 2011 and none at all in 2012!
Eben lives at home with his mom and dad and has just bought a house in Plattekloof in the Northern Suburbs, and his parents will move in there with him.
Eben often comes back to Tygerberg, especially to see Beresford.
He is a special player and a special man. Beresford said it: “As good a lock as he is, he remains a far better person than he is a rugby player.”