Cape Town – Eben Etzebeth would have woken up on Sunday morning as one of the happiest men in the world.
He got married to actress and singer Anlia van Rensburg in Franschhoek on Saturday, was named as the SA Rugby Player of the Year earlier this week, and can enjoy a proper honeymoon as he is on a few weeks’ break from rugby.
Etzebeth has made a successful start to life at the Sharks, where he and Van Rensburg have also settled down in Ballito after his move from Toulon.
After all of that, there is another important event coming up: the 2023 Rugby World Cup, and there is nothing more Etzebeth and his teammates would want than to defend the Webb Ellis Cup in France in September and October.
The Boks face a tough Pool D schedule, with Scotland first up on September 10 in Marseille, followed by Romania a week later in Bordeaux, then the likely group decider against Ireland in Paris on September 23 and a physical encounter with Tonga on October 1 in Marseille.
The quarter-finals are on October 14 and 15, the semi-finals a week later, and the final is on October 28 at the Stade de France in Paris.
The Boks won eight Tests and lost five last year, finishing off the year with a four-game tour of Europe, where they beat Italy and England, but lost to Ireland and France.
“I can’t sit here and say we are happy about those two defeats. If one or two things went our way, we would’ve won those games. But it goes down in history that we lost two Test matches,” Etzebeth said during the week.
“We as a team know we will be good contenders for the World Cup – or I must say defenders, because we are the reigning champs.
“So, everyone is excited and looking forward to it. I think the team, the coaches and the players know where they stand, and we will bring our A game and have a good shot at it.
“I would say we were quite confident in 2019 after we got a few good victories away from home, and you need that as the World Cup is played away from home.
“And I think this past year again, we got a few victories away from home that will give us confidence.
“But confidence is not the only thing – you are going to have to pitch up on the weekend, win at least three out of the four pool games and then it’s going to be three games in a row that you have to win against quality opposition to win the World Cup.
“I won’t say the confidence is high or low, but I know when we hit the World Cup, we must be ready and the confidence must be high.”
Etzebeth’s own confidence must be sky-high at the moment, as his SA Rugby award proved that he is in top form at the moment.
Apart from his usual enforcer role, it was noticeable that he added a few more strings to his bow, such as chasing and contesting box-kicks, displaying some soft hands with his offloads, and ranging up in the outside channels in midfield – a throwback to his days as a centre at Tygerberg High School in Cape Town.
“The game evolves. If you think about where many of the guys started – like me, Frans (Malherbe, who is also getting married today), Siya (Kolisi) in 2011, 2012 at the Stormers – if you remain the same player, then the game can almost go past you because it develops so quickly,” the Bok No 4 said.
“So, players also have to develop and grow, and those are some of the aspects where I thought I could make a contribution. Every guy tries to bring something new to try to continue to be good enough to play for the Springboks.”
Now the countdown to the World Cup begins. After their return to action in March, the top Boks will have to negotiate the rest of the United Rugby Championship (URC) league season and Champions Cup play-offs, and then the national team will start their Rugby Championship campaign against Australia at Loftus Versfeld on July 8.
Their last warm-up match before the World Cup is against the All Blacks in London on August 25, and Etzebeth cannot wait to get stuck in.
“I think we got a nice experience playing in Marseille (against France in November) – how loud it will be. The guys could barely hear each other in the warm-ups. So, we got a taste of that,” he said.
“But for France, it’s home-ground advantage and they will feel the atmosphere from the crowd – and all the rest (of the teams) will come there and just perform.
“There are probably eight teams that I feel have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup, so it’s definitely our desire too. When the World Cup starts in September, it’s going to be performances week in and week out for a seven, eight-week period to win the World Cup.”