Cape Town – Eben Etzebeth was the captain of a formidable Springbok team that ran onto the Aviva Stadium pitch for a November 2017 Test against Ireland.
How’s this for a pack of forwards: Tendai Mtawarira, Malcolm Marx, Coenie Oosthuizen, Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Francois Louw.
The backline was not as experienced, but still had some real quality: Ross Cronjé, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Dillyn Leyds and Andries Coetzee.
The replacements bench had some proper firepower too: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw, Franco Mostert, Uzair Cassiem, Rudy Paige, Handre Pollard and Francois Venter.
Yet, Allister Coetzee’s team capitulated to a 38-3 defeat in Dublin.
The Boks were watched by Munster coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber in the stands, and that was where the seeds were sown for the former Stormers duo to return to South Africa and take charge of the national team a year later – and the rest is history.
It is the first time that the Boks have returned to the Irish capital since, though, and while they were greeted by the familiar weather elements this week, Etzebeth is hoping for a very different outcome against the world’s No 1-ranked team on Saturday.
“I was part of that team in 2017, and I think it is a totally different ball-game now. Both teams have different game plans and have improved over the years, so it will be a great Test on Saturday and one where we can measure ourselves against them,” the 106-cap stalwart said on Wednesday.
“The preparations have gone well. Today, we experienced some rain and lots of wind, and earlier in the week, it was a bit drier. So, I think we are used to all the weather conditions. So, whatever comes on Saturday, we’ve experienced both.”
The fact that the two teams will face each other in the 2023 Rugby World Cup as well makes Saturday’s clash even more intriguing, but the Boks can’t worry about next year.
They need to find a way to outwit an Irish side that are highly skilful and, according to Rassie Erasmus, have gained a physical “edge” under new coach Andy Farrell – a defence guru – who replaced Joe Schmidt following the 2019 World Cup.
Veteran flyhalf Johnny Sexton pulled the strings in typical fashion in the 2017 encounter, but he can only flourish on Saturday if the Irish forwards can secure front-foot ball against a powerful Bok pack.
Etzebeth, though, will hope that his teammates can give him a memorable late birthday present, having turned 31 last Saturday.
“We saw in that series against New Zealand (which Ireland won 2-1 earlier this year) that they had quite a strong maul – they maul quite a bit. And then they’ve also got a good scrum. They won a couple of scrum penalties in that series, and I must say that they are very clinical at the breakdown – they know their job exactly, and they do their job very well,” the Sharks No 4 said.
“They got a serious win in New Zealand, and we all know that is not an easy thing to do. They are ranked number one in the world currently, so it’s going to be a great Test match for us.
“And I think it does add a bit of spice that we are playing them in the World Cup next year, so it’s almost like a curtain-raiser for that game.
“But we are fully focused for this Test match. I know we’ve still got a long end-of-year tour, but Ireland have been on our minds for the last couple of weeks.
“The World Cup will be something on its own. We last played them in 2017, so it’s nice to play them this year.”