Bryan Habana says the return of Springbok legend Bakkies Botha has had a profound impact on the rest of the squad, reports JON CARDINELLI in Edinburgh.
Botha last played for the Boks at the 2011 World Cup in a pool game against Fiji. An injury forced him to miss the remainder of that campaign, and his decision to take up a contract in France was thought to mark the end of the great No 4's international career.
Even when Botha said at the time, 'This isn't the end for me, I will be back', few would have believed that he would get another chance at the highest level.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, who coached Botha for many years at the Bulls, has brought the World Cup winner back for this tour to Europe. After witnessing Botha's influential performances during Toulon's successful 2012-13 European Cup campaign, Meyer believes the big man can still offer the Boks something as a player and as a mentor to the youngsters in the squad.
A BOOST FOR YOUNG AND OLD
Last week, Botha could be seen at the team hotel in Cardiff chatting to the younger players. Yesterday, Botha and Pieter-Steph du Toit were spotted walking the streets of Edinburgh, talking intensely about life, the universe, and everything.
Botha's return has also had an impact on the senior players. Habana and Botha attended a press conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday, and it was here that the winger failed to contain his enthusiasm.
Habana has enjoyed many victories and triumphs alongside Botha, when they were playing for Meyer at the Bulls and then when they played for the Boks between 2004 and 2011. They have since been reunited at Toulon.
Habana knows what Botha meant to the Bok team back then, and what Botha's return could mean for Meyer's side on the current tour and in the season to come.
'The presence he still has in the squad, it's immense,' said Habana. 'That first week in Cardiff, with guys like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth looking up to this legend of the game, or guys like Marcell Coetzee and Siya Kolisi calling him Oom, it was pretty special. Even at Toulon, his presence is something the team values, that every team he's part of values. Not only the physical presence that he has, but his integrity too.
'He comes into the side with a wealth of experience, not only in terms of Test rugby, but also playing overseas. He's improved himself on the rugby field, and has also grown as a person, and to see him giving life lessons to the youngsters has been wonderful.
'When I got to Toulon, I saw the yearning and the hunger in his eyes,' Habana added. 'To see him sitting next to me, to think that he could possibly wear that green and gold again, I'm thrilled for him. It's a great moment, not just for a team-mate, but for a friend.'
MAKING NEW MEMORIES
Botha told the media in Edinburgh that he always believed he would get this chance again, and reminded us of his parting shot at the 2011 World Cup.
Nevertheless, he is determined to make the most of his opportunity and realises he has been brought into the squad to do more than just play.
'The day I arrived in Cardiff I felt like a new player, a young player. I don't know the word that explains how I feel ... Respect? Awed? When guys call you Oom ... But having said that, respect goes further than that, it's about respecting each other on the pitch, and I've been happy to see that,' he said.
Botha will start against Scotland this Sunday. Meyer has brought Botha back into the squad, not because he wants to replace Etzebeth permanently, but because he wants to have more than one option in that No 4 position, and he wants to strike a balance between youth and experience.
Etzebeth, as well as several other youngsters in the team, will benefit from working with Botha.
'It's a privilege to be able to pass on my experience to guys like Etzebeth and Du Toit. And then you have to keep the young props motivated, too. Frans Malherbe's work rate was phenomenal in the Wales game. As far as scrumming goes, as long as a prop keeps his back straight, and he has a strong lock pushing behind him, we can't go backwards. Even with the new law.'
Nothing has been decided regarding Botha's long-term involvement with the side. Botha said he is not even looking further than this afternoon's training session, which will be staged on the inevitably wet fields of Lasswade Rugby Club, some 20 miles outside of Edinburgh.
The only goal Botha has at present is to beat Scotland at Murrayfield. Botha was involved in that gutting 21-17 loss to the Bravehearts back in 2010, and that result still rankles.
'I want to change my memories of this ground,' he said. 'Hopefully we can do that this weekend.
'Scotland are a quality side. They ended third in the Six Nations, a lot of their players are playing in the French competition, like [lock] Richie Gray. They showed against Japan last week that they play for 85 minutes. I remember the last game I played against them, they're very physical.'
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Regarding his own move to France, Botha believes it's the best thing he could have done. He's relishing playing for Toulon, even though the demands of competing in that European club environment are high.
'I don't know if the body's getting older or the league's getting tougher,' the big man said with a booming laugh. 'It is a tough, long competition. You don't go there if you're soft, and I'm glad I made the decision to go there. As long as I'm blessed to be injury free, I will continue.'
Botha has fast become a fan favourite at Toulon, and is also a popular figure at the clubhouse. The reason? He makes his own boerewors and, as he isn't afraid to say, it's some of the finest South African fare going around in that part of the world.
'When I first arrived, Joe van Niekerk was the only other South African at Toulon. Since then, they have been coming over thick and fast. Why is that? Is it the euro, or the boerewors?
'I love it when the guys phone me, even guys like [former Wallabies centre] Matt Giteau, asking if they can drop by and pick up some boerewors. It's nice to have a few enjoyable moments like that, to show the Aussies and English how to barbecue.'
This weekend, however, Botha is determined to show the Scots how to play hard, physical rugby.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images
Bulls fullback Jesse Kriel always backs himself to have a go, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Duane Vermeulen continues to impress as a player and leader, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Referees too process-driven
JOHN MITCHELL, writing on the Vodacom Rugby Portal, says referees have lost their feel for the game.