Saluting a rugby giant

Bakkies Botha has achieved the rarest of player goals: adding to a legend in the twilight of a career, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Last November, Botha played his last Test for the Springboks against England at Twickenham. The veteran lock was brutally effective in a contest fought at close quarters, and seemed to have lost none of his relish for the physical side of international rugby. Indeed, it came as a shock when Botha announced his retirement from Test rugby just a week later.

Following his performance in the European Champions Cup final, some may still be wondering why Botha called time on his international career. The 35-year-old may only have played 47 minutes of that final, but his contributions during those 47 minutes would be telling. In what was possibly his last appearance at the elite level, Botha delivered an abrasive display that was both influential and true to his legend as one of greatest enforcers of the game.

Then there is the small matter of that record. Toulon’s 24-18 win in the final against Clermont marked the French club’s third consecutive title triumph. Botha has played a key role in all three campaigns. He also has three Vodacom Super Rugby winner’s medals. Then there is the success he has enjoyed at Test level, namely the series win against the British & Irish Lions, two Tri-Nations titles, and the winning of the World Cup in 2007.

No other player has enjoyed such success. And it will be a long time yet before anyone else comes close to replicating the feat.

Botha was already a rugby legend when the Bulls won their third Super Rugby title in 2010. At that point, he had won everything a South African could win at Test, regional and provincial levels. When he went to Toulon in late 2011, many felt it was an opportunity to end a great career with a big pay cheque. Few could have anticipated that he would make such a big impact in one of the toughest leagues in the world.

The European club scene is not for the faint-hearted. The Top 14 is especially gruelling and demanding. And yet, Botha has managed to meet the standard and then some.

Botha went to France at an advanced rugby age in 2011, and played so well that he eventually received a Test recall in 2013. He would prove his worth in the Boks’ emphatic victory against France in Paris, and then in the big wins against Australia, New Zealand, and finally England in 2014.

But Botha has always been honest with himself as well as the public about his longevity. When he rejoined the Boks in late 2013, he admitted that the 2015 World Cup may be a bridge too far, and that machine of a body was nearing its expiration date. Indeed, even though he gave absolutely everything in the recent final at Twickenham, he only played 47 minutes.

Nevertheless, Botha has succeeded where so many top players fail in the twilight of their careers. He has won three European titles and a Top 14 trophy with Toulon. Through it all, he has maintained a high level of performance. That is how rugby fans will remember him.

Danie Rossouw was rightly praised for his achievements when he won the double with Toulon last season. Where Rossouw trumps Botha is that he has won silverware on three different continents (he won two trophies with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan). And yet, you’d struggle to argue that he has achieved more than Botha. Three titles in Europe, three in Super Rugby … it’s just never been done before.

Two other South Africans deserve praise for their consistent brilliance abroad. Juan Smith and Bryan Habana were prominent in the recent decider at Twickenham, and have also added to their respective legacies with a second European title. Habana is the one player who will have another big opportunity at the World Cup later this year. Winning a second world title with the Boks would place him in elite company with prop Os du Randt.

While Heyneke Meyer has said that he would like to take Botha to the World Cup in England, the lock feels that his best days as a Test player are over. Perhaps that statement is yet another thing that marks Botha as a man apart. While he has won six regional titles across both hemispheres, the latter three in the twilight of his career, the 35-year-old is not so presumptuous to believe that influential form at the elite level will last forever.

Toulon currently lead the Top 14 league, and so there is a strong chance that Botha could win yet another domestic title with the club in the final next month. He has also mentioned that he would like to finish his career at the Bulls, who are regular contenders for Currie Cup honours.

For now, we can content ourselves with that lasting image of Botha at the highest level. He left Test rugby with a bang last November. If that Champions Cup final was indeed his last game in the competition, then Botha did his legend justice.

The ground-breaking achievement is worthy of celebration, but so too is the brutally physical performance. It was vintage Bakkies Botha. Could any player have hoped for more?

VIDEO: Highlights of Toulon vs Clermont

Photo: David Rogers

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