The hard man of world rugby has seen it all and won it all, writes MARK KEOHANE in Sport Monthly magazine.
Springbok Test centurion Percy Montgomery tells of a Vodacom Super Rugby pre-season match at Sun City between the Sharks and Bulls to best illustrate the rugby mindset of 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok teammate Bakkies Botha.
‘It was the first hit-out of the pre-season; one of those contact sessions where both sides play all their squad members and the match is divided into four 20-minute quarters. For Bakkies, it could have been a Test match and for me it felt like a Test match when he chased me for the best part of 20 minutes to hammer me in a tackle.
‘My crime was to put in a big hit on him early,’ says Montgomery. ‘It was one of those tackles, where his body positioning was slightly off and my point of contact just happened to give me all the power and momentum in the tackle. “I am coming for you Monty,” he kept telling me and I thought he was joking. This was 28 January and we’d finished an overseas Springbok tour as teammates less than two months before that.
‘He hunted me down, ensured he was the one marking any potential pass to me and he eventually got me and smashed me in the tackle. Once done, he laughed and said that was for the early pre-season hit on him.
‘Everyone, on both teams, found it hilarious. I saw the funny side of it, even if it was a pained funny moment. Thereafter Bakkies was good as gold and it was like we were Bok teammates again.
‘There’s no charity on a rugby field when it comes to Bakkies, Springbok teammate or not; Test match, pre-season warm-up or simply a midweek Bok contact session. Bakkies’ mindset never allowed for any opponent to feel he had one over him.
‘And as soon as the session or game was over, he was all humility, handshakes and smiles. It’s what made him so imposing for the Bulls, Springboks and in the last three years at Toulon. It is what made him a Springbok legend, but the player and the individual are not one and the same. He’s such a kind and good oke off the field, but on it, he’s something else.’
Springbok coach and Botha’s coach at the Bulls for nearly a decade, Heyneke Meyer, witnessed and moulded the transition from a raw rugby talent to an impressively balanced and worldly-wise human being. The triumph for Botha, says Meyer, is the essence of the man he has become.
‘He is a wonderful and compassionate human being. He is loyal, inspirational and very true to his values and Christian faith. He has worked so hard away from rugby at improving his being as a person. He has learned from mistakes and what always impressed me was his honesty – to himself – and to any situation.’
Botha retired as the most celebrated South African player. His achievements included a World Cup title, Tri-Nations silverware, Vodacom and Currie Cup success and he is the only player to have three Super Rugby title medals and three European Cup gold medals, the history-making last of which came in early May when Toulon beat Clermont to become the first team to win three successive European Cup finals.
Botha, an institution at the Bulls and the Springboks with lock partner Victor Matfield, speaks passionately about his last three years in France. It is here, in the club colours of Toulon, that Botha righted the wrongs of a Test debut that saw him yellow-carded for a reckless knee to an opponent. The Boks lost 30-10 that night in Marseilles and Botha was dropped for the next Test against Scotland.
Botha, raw and robust on the field in his debut, was always the antithesis off it. His sense of humour was of the clever and not crass variety. He put team values first and he fronted his actions, even when they came with little public or media cheer.
Botha’s Test debut coincided with my employment as the Springbok team’s communications manager.
Rudolf Straeuli coached the Boks in the Marseilles debacle and Rian Oberholzer, as SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd’s managing director, controlled the business of Springbok rugby.
Oberholzer was the more imposing presence in the change room at half-time when few of the forwards were prepared to make eye contact with him as he bollocked the embarrassment of a first-half effort in which the Boks physically were given a beating. He fronted each of the forwards individually to express his displeasure at their lack of fight. The majority busied themselves with fixing their socks or doing anything that meant they didn’t have to look up. He walked and cursed. Botha was the exception. He sat upright and took in the full glare of Oberholzer.
Speaking in Afrikaans, Oberholzer softened his tone when addressing Botha and said he was puzzled at Botha’s lack of discipline in his Test debut.
‘You are supposed to be the hard man,’ he said to Botha. ‘What the f**k happened?’
Botha responded immediately: ‘I kneed him.’
Oberholzer, puzzled again, said: ‘Right in front of the referee? What provoked it? What did the French player do?’
Botha said: ‘Nothing …’
Oberholzer paused and then thanked him for making eye contact.
‘Thank you, Bakkies,’ he said. ‘At least you are honest and aren’t trying to bulls**t yourself like the rest of the forwards.’
The second half was even more humiliating and the Boks ended the match with uncontested scrums as the props sought solace among the team’s medics and physios.
Botha never gave up, but he was a kid asked to front a fired-up French pack in manic Marseilles when the veterans did a runner.
He was dumped for the Scotland Test and watched from the stands as Scotland won 21-6. Straeuli was criticised for not selecting Botha in his match-day squad but the lock simply backed his coach’s decision.
‘You need to be aware of how you word whatever it is you want to say to the media because they are going to want to know the details of the fallout from Marseilles between you and the coach,’ Straeuli told him.
Botha smiled: ‘John Philip will play them with a straight bat,’ he said. He then played a forward defensive stroke in which the batsman strains to ensure the ball is killed. ‘John Philip will give them nothing to write about.’
Botha was all about the team. He had no interest in venting to the media or undermining the team management. He also attempted to provide cheer as the leader of the non-playing ‘tourists’ on what was a miserable fortnight in Edinburgh and London.
He knew he was good enough to be a Springbok but he vowed to do it the hard way through performance for the Bulls, be it in the Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup or Super Rugby.
‘I have huge respect for what Bakkies has achieved as a rugby player, but it is his growth as a man and his willingness to take responsibility when his discipline failed him that I’m proud of,’ said Meyer when he picked him as a Springbok in 2014.
Botha never took a step backwards in confrontation and he was never prepared to accept leaving the field second best in the collision count. He applauded anyone who put him on his backside in a tackle or if he was the tackler, but he let them know immediately that he was coming for them.
‘Bakkies always spoke of the honour of wearing the Bulls and Bok jerseys,’ said Meyer. ‘The mistakes, especially the ban for being found guilty of biting Australia Brendan Cannon in a Test match in Brisbane, were not premeditated or acts of malice. They were heat-of-the-moment actions and reactions of a young player who felt the consequence of ill-discipline.’
Botha never sought an excuse for any of his early career ill-discipline. He took the cards, the suspensions and the walk of shame past his teammates. His character eyed those teammates and apologised. He spoke of introspection and of being answerable to God.
He is deeply religious. He practises his Christianity as much as speaks about it. He never questioned the why but in media interviews would praise his Heavenly Father for the belief in his strength of character and for the guidance in returning mentally stronger, wiser and more accountable as a man.
Botha, nicknamed ‘the Enforcer’ in South Africa and ‘the Butcher’ at Toulon, was the man of steel to his supporters and a thug to his detractors, but to his teammates, coaches, mates and family he was always a man of principle who sought forgiveness for mistakes and guidance in how to fix them. He retired from Test rugby after injury ended his 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. He lamented that he hadn’t left Test rugby a winner on top of his game but felt his only response was to prove to the rugby people of Toulon that they had invested in a quality player and human being.
‘I felt I did that,’ Botha said in interviews after a third successive European Cup win at Toulon. He thanked the club’s owner for investing in him and for giving him an opportunity to fix his Achilles heel injury and also how history would view him as a Springbok.
He made it his goal to play one more Test for the Springboks and to leave knowing he was still good enough to be in the Test squad.
Botha summoned everything he had mentally and physically to realise this goal and when the Springboks beat England at Twickenham in 2014, Botha was both an enforcer and influencer of the result as much as he was the Butcher to anything wearing an England jersey.
Again, Botha’s first response to the success was to praise his Lord and to give thanks to teammates, coaches, friends, family and supporters of his career.
– This first appeared in the June issue of Sport Monthly magazine, which is distributed to selected Business Day and Sunday Times subscribers.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images