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R.I.P. Cliffie Etzebeth

Grown men don’t cry, but there must have been strong men who felt tears well at the news that Cliffie Etzebeth had died in a motor accident on Sunday afternoon.

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In the 1970s and 1980s, Etzebeth, uncle of Springbok Eben, was one of the great characters of Newlands – a man among men, a strong man with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes, man who managed to be both direct and subtle at the same time, a tough man, a fighter and friendly, a big man who did not shy away from conflict. On the rugby field, he was aggressive but not at all a dirty player.

He was so full of bright life that it’s hard to think that he is dead.

One of nine children, seven of whom were boys, Etzebeth knew rough and tumble from an early age. In a poor family, he knew how to guard what was his but became a generous man.

He grew up in Epping, not far from the market that serves Cape Town. He and his brothers became wrestlers, joining the Parow Wrestling Club. Cliffie and Skattie, the oldest brother whose first name was really Christoffel, became Springbok wrestlers and at the age of 62 Cliffie represented South Africa at the world wrestling tournament in Switzerland, winning a gold medal in his age group.

Cliffie’s younger brother, Harry, a wrestler and a cricket player, is the father of Eben. Asked about his nephew, Cliffie said: “He’s a freak.” He said it with great pride and love.

Cliffie went to Epping High School and then Oude Molen, but, family circumstances being what they were, he was required to work as soon as possible, and he and Skattie found gainful employ as bouncers in their off time.

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He played rugby for Police, an open club situated in Pinelands, then Villagers and finally Goodwood, whom he captained. He said with a grin that he joined Villagers to learn to become a gentleman! He was a gentleman.

I was a referee when Cliffie was a club player, and a delight on the field and after the match. Not once was he a problem on the field or off it, and we stayed in occasional contact from then on, always cheerful contact, always with happy laughter.

He played for Western Province from 1977 to 1981, to the threshold of Western Province’s Currie Cup successes of the 1980s. He played at lock and tighthead prop. Today he would be regarded as too light (105 kg) for both and too short for a lock at 1,94 m.

There are many stories of Cliffie, his escapades and, especially, his witty sayings.

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George Clifford Etzebeth was born in Wynberg on 25 June 1949. Living at Stellenbosch at the time, he died on Sunday, 22 July 2018 on the R300, a road that heads up to the N1. The bakkie in which he was travelling left the road and overturned. He was travelling alone. He is survived by his son and three daughters.

Paul Dobson

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