Bakkies Botha has retired with his legacy intact and with the Springboks well covered in the enforcer position, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Not many players leave Test rugby on their own terms. Even fewer quit the game a year out from a World Cup, or leave when they are still capable of delivering match-altering performances.
On Saturday night in Padova, Bakkies Botha confirmed that his long journey with the Boks is over. There was plenty of emotion in the South African change room post the 22-6 win against Italy, and when Heyneke Meyer fronted the travelling press.
Botha has called time on his outstanding career, ignoring pleas from Meyer and others to reconsider the decision. Botha felt the recent game against England at Twickenham was a fitting way to end it all.
For the big man, that result, occasion, as well as his own abrasive performance ticked all the boxes. Spent, bleeding, and toasting a famous win at the home of rugby. What could be better? ‘That was my World Cup final,’ he told us this past Saturday. ‘That’s how I want to remember the game.’
I’m not surprised that Botha has opted to call time on his career. He’s won everything there is to win in Test, provincial and club rugby. When injury forced him out of the 2011 World Cup play-offs, he said that he would be back. He made good on the promise in November 2013, but even then, you got the feeling he wouldn’t go the distance to the 2015 tournament.
In the past two years, Botha has won two European Cup titles with Toulon, as well as a Top 14 title. And yet, last November, he told the media from the Boks’ base in Edinburgh that his body would tell him when it was time to quit. He refused to talk about 2015, and encouraged the pressmen to focus on how he could contribute to the Boks over the subsequent few months.
Botha has come to understand his own physical limitations. And he has been mature and brave enough to remind everybody from the media to the Bok coaching staff that he is not going to be around forever.
Botha made a difference in that 2013 Test against Scotland in Edinburgh, and in the subsequent clash against France in Paris. This year, we’ve witnessed the Botha of old, especially in the latter stages of the Rugby Championship, and in the big win over England in London.
It’s easy to understand why Meyer would want Botha to delay the decision to retire. Last Saturday in Padova, Meyer still seemed in a state of denial.
He spoke about what Botha will be doing in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup, which is playing his final season for Toulon in France. Thereafter, a stint with a South African Currie Cup side may follow. Meyer said that maybe, just maybe, he could get Botha to change his mind and join the Boks for their World Cup campaign.
And yet, going by what Botha said on Saturday night, this is unlikely. He seemed a man at peace, with absolutely no regrets. He spoke about the next generation of South African locks, and why he feels it’s the right time to let the likes of Eben Etzebeth take centre stage.
Botha needs to take some credit for Etzebeth’s development, and for the development of the other locks in the Bok squad. The reaction to his retirement has been met with sadness across the board. The players and coaches have accepted his decision, but are evidently unhappy to see him go. The prevailing feeling is Botha may have had more to give as a mentor and as a player over the next 11 months.
Ultimately, Botha has decided to end his career on what he feels to be a high note. So many players push through to a World Cup tournament with the hope of capping their career in a fairytale manner. For Botha, who has done it all and won it all, the decision to retire is made easier.
In his heart of hearts he probably realises his body will betray him sooner rather than later. It's thus fitting that rugby fans the world over will remember him for that final performance at Twickenham, rather than as an ageing player who eventually lost the magic that marked him as somebody special in his prime.
The image of Botha bleeding and celebrating after a typically abrasive performance, as well as a win, against England will live on forever.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images