Bakkies Botha capped off a glittering career by claiming a third European title with Toulon, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
It’s been a long road, and at times a tough one, but its end has finally been reached. As of June 2015 Bakkies Botha is an ex-professional rugby player. It will no doubt take a while for those words to sink in, for the Springbok legend to realise that no more will he have to put his body through the hell of pre-season training; no more will he have that feeling in the pit of his stomach on match day, and no more will he wake up on a Sunday morning all battered and bruised. Life is going to be gentler, and Botha can’t wait.
‘Rugby has been good to me,’ he reflects. ‘I played it at the highest level for 15 years and that’s long enough. I’ve played my part and I made a difference wherever I went. But from here, my main goal is to go back home and give all my time and attention to my three wonderful kids and my beautiful wife. They have sacrificed so much time and effort to be by my side and support me.’
Never was the support of his family more appreciated than in November 2011 when Botha left South Africa to join Toulon on a three-year deal that subsequently became four. The money was good, actually it was better than good – a reputed €700 000 per season – but all the same, Botha’s departure to the Côte d’Azur was a major upheaval for his family.
It was a challenge for the then 32-year-old, too. Botha recalls that Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal wasn’t overly impressed when he hobbled into the club nearly four years ago, his body worn down by the remorseless grind of Super and Test rugby.
‘The club was definitely unhappy, especially Mourad Boudjellal, who said, “How can he sign a contract and then arrive here injured?”’ recounts Botha.
If Boudjellal ever harboured any doubts about Botha’s commitment to the cause, they were soon dispelled. Within six months, Toulon had reached their first Top 14 final for 20 years, and though they lost 18-12 to Toulouse, the experience would be banked and drawn on the following season when they met Clermont in the European Cup final. That victory set Toulon up for a European and domestic double, but a surprise defeat to Castres destroyed – or rather, delayed – that dream until May 2014. In that month Toulon defended their European title against Saracens and won their first Top 14 championship for 22 years by beating Castres in the season finale.
At the time of writing, they remained on course for an unprecedented ‘double double’, having already made history by becoming the first club to win three consecutive European titles. Their 24-18 defeat of Clermont at Twickenham was perhaps the most impressive of the three, a performance underpinned by power but containing precision, pace and – in the case of Drew Mitchell’s match-winning try – poetry. Present in all six finals has been Botha.
‘It’s been a fairy tale for me in France. Everyone thought I came to collect a pension fund, get some euros in the bank, and have a holiday before going back home,’ he says. ‘But I’ve shown the president I didn’t come to do that. I’ve put in the work and the hard yards … and on top of that I got a call from Heyneke Meyer to play for the Springboks.’
Botha won nine more caps after Meyer recalled him to the Bok squad in November 2013, two years after his last appearance in the green and gold jersey. He talks warmly of the opportunity to work alongside Eben Etzebeth, but there’s little doubt Botha’s fondest memories are of the previous generation of Springboks, the players with whom he won the 2007 World Cup. Fortunately, Toulon have provided the chance to relive old times with some of those men.
‘When I started at Toulon it was only myself and Joe van Niekerk from South Africa,’ explains Botha. ‘But then Danie [Rossouw], Juan [Smith] and Bryan [Habana] came, and it was nice to see the guys; to have a chat around the braai about the days in South Africa.’
Such experiences and camaraderie are bestowed on but a small number of players but Botha insists it will be no problem turning his back on the sport to which he has given so much in the past 15 years.
‘A lot of guys ask me if I’ll get involved in coaching, but rugby was a part of Bakkies Botha’s life and not his whole life,’ he explains. ‘I have new dreams and I want to be with my wife and kids, and the most I can do for coaching is maybe help my little boy at school level but not at professional level. Because then you fall back into the same culture of being away every weekend and going on tours and that’s the stuff I did for 15 years and I’m tired of it now. I just want to spend my time and energy on my loved ones at home, and enjoy watching the rugby on TV.’
If ever a player has earned the right to a peaceful retirement, it’s Botha. Rugby will be the poorer for his departure, not just because of his talent but his full-blooded commitment, be it for the Bulls, the Springboks or Toulon.
‘Hopefully I can be remembered as a hard nut in the industry, who enjoyed my rugby very much, and that I made a difference,’ reflects Botha. ‘I did step over the line a few times but that’s part of life.’
World Cup (2007)
Tri-Nations (2004, 2009)
Lions series (2009)
Super Rugby (2007, 2009, 2010)
European Cup (2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15)
Currie Cup (2002, 2004, 2009)
Top 14 (2013-14)
Vodacom Cup (2001)
– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine