GARETH DUNCAN chats to former Springbok and Bulls lock Bakkies Botha about life in Toulon, facing old team-mates in Europe and when he plans on retiring.
How’s life in Toulon?
I’m really loving it here as the weather’s great. The sun even shines in winter. The only issue is the language barrier, which I’m still struggling with. It’s easy to understand what people are saying, but it’s very difficult to speak French.
Are you a popular figure in public?
The people in Toulon love their rugby, and there are many famous international players who are based here. So the locals do recognise me and the other guys. They are very friendly people and support the team passionately.
Who are the players who you spend most of your time with?
The whole squad gets along really well. I’m quite close with the likes of Matt Giteau, Simon Shaw and Carl Hayman. Playing at Toulon is like the experience you get at the Barbarians, because of all the different nationalities in the team. But there’s obviously a more serious approach to training. It’s interesting working with these guys because I played against most of them during my time with the Bulls and Boks. It’s really nice to see the great work ethic and dedication of a player like Jonny Wilkinson, who spends hours and hours on his goal-kicking.
Are you excited about the arrivals of Bryan Habana, Danie Rossouw and possibly John Smit next season?
I’ve read quite a lot about the players who are likely to arrive next season, and that’s quite exciting. Joe van Niekerk and I are the only South Africans here, so it would be great to get a couple of more okes who can help us braai for the team.
You recently recovered from a serious eye injury. What happened?
During our European Cup game against the Sale Sharks, I was chasing a kick-off. The opposition player jumped up to get the ball, and I stood my ground. I don’t remember much of what happened next, but his hip hit me in the face and I broke my eye socket in three places. I had to undergo surgery, and after a hour-long operation, I was sidelined for seven weeks. But I’ve recovered well and I'm back on the field.
What are Toulon’s goals for the rest of the European season?
Our main goal was to book a home quarter-final in the European Cup, and we’ve managed to do that. We will host the Leicester Tigers on 7 April, which should be a great game. We also want to be a force in the French Top 14. We’re currently on top of the log, so that’s very good. But there's not much between the top three teams, so we need to continue to work hard if we want to qualify for a home play-off and stand a strong chance to win the title.
In this weekend’s Top 14 fixture, Toulon face Toulouse, who have Gary Botha and Gurthro Steenkamp in their squad. Have you been in touch with your former Bulls team-mates?
I gave Gary a call in the week, but he’s still struggling with an ankle injury and will not play. But Gurthro should start. I’ve bumped into so many South African players in France. I played against former Bulls team-mate Heini Adams in a tough game against Bordeaux, and he had a great match. Against Mont-de-Marsan, I realised I used to play with one of their front rankers, Pieter Grobler, during my days at the Valke, so it was great to catch up with him. You get to recognise so many South African faces during the European season.
Do you still keep an eye on South African rugby?
I have a Sky decoder at home, so I watch rugby whenever I can. I get to watch Super Rugby and Six Nations games and I’m really enjoying that. I also enjoy communicating with people on Twitter. I give my parents a call regularly, but Twitter allows me to catch up with my friends and fans back in sunny South Africa. I still have many belongings back home, and I can’t wait to return.
What are your thoughts on Eben Etzebeth?
He did really well during his first senior season last year. But I believe he’s injured, so he needs to manage himself carefully. Hopefully he can hit the ground running when he returns to action and continue his great form. He’s definitely one of the top locks in South Africa at the moment.
When do you plan on coming back home?
I’ve committed to Toulon until June 2015. Then that will be the end of Bakkies Botha and rugby. I told my kids that will be the last major move of my career and I won’t break that promise.
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