Bakkies adds brain to brawn

Bakkies Botha is the acknowledged enforcer of the Springbok team, writes Keo in the Argus.

If someone needs sorting out, legally of course, Botha will look after the job. In the past the sorting out wasn’t always legal.

He was young, aggressive and out of control when he made his Test debut in France in 2002 and characterised it with a yellow card, but it is a calm Botha who reflects on that night in Marseilles and the five-year path to a Saturday night in Paris he believes will bring rugby’s golden prize.

There has been forced introspection on his career after an eight-week ban for biting Australian hooker Brendan Cannon in 2003. The consequence is a wiser, if no less competitive international player.

Religion and marriage have given him inner peace, but his rugby strength in the last few years has come from an understanding of what it means to be an enforcer.

To own the floor you have to be in control and that mindset change has been the most significant advance when you compare the enforcer of today with the basher of 2002.

The youthful Botha, he admits, channelled his aggression at the man and not the ball. The youthful Botha thought in terms of an individual contribution and not the consequence to a team of his actions. He hasn’t so much as grown up, but wised up.

It is said the most successful nightclub bouncers are the ones who never get involved in a fight and don’t feel the need to hit anyone.

They have a way of asking a patron to leave the place because they have presence and a look that says there’s an easy way to do things and there’s a stupid way to conclude the discussion.

Botha’s early days were often concluded by the stupid way, which at the time seemed like the right way. Now a dismissive look of contempt has more impact than an off-the-ball shoulder charge.

He’ll never go soft and if there is a scuffle he’ll always be at the heart of it, but it’s been his ability to deal with the niggles and the cheap shots directed at him that have defined his individual World Cup campaign.

He knows he is a target for any team and is still seen as a probable yellow card candidate. Get to Bakkies early and you could be playing seven Bok forwards for 10 minutes.

The Test debut yellow card won’t ever go away when the opposition analyses him and neither will his run-ins with the Wallabies in 2003.

“It is no coincidence that the Bok forward who has left the field in the last three matches for stitches is me,” he says. The latest stitching still hasn’t been removed from his right eyebrow.

“I know they come for me, but I know how to deal with it now. My response is to play the ball, to make the hard hit with a tackle and to put my energy into the basics of my game and when trying to dominate in the contact areas of the game.”

Time in the arena has taught him that timing is everything. There’s a time to not take a step back and there’s also a time to laugh it off, he says, adding that it is all about consequence to the team.

“In the beginning you just want to make your mark on the game. You want to show people who you are and in my case I simply channelled all that desire and energy in the wrong way.

You find yourself chasing recognition for being the best, but you only get that recognition through how you actually play,” he says.

Botha has realised you can be a tough man and a clever one and clever men tend to win more often than just tough ones.

“It is about peace of mind and being comfortable with your own image,” says Botha.

“I am very content socially in my circumstance, my home life and my beliefs. I owe so much to my trust in God. When I got suspended for eight weeks in 2003 it was the darkest, most painful and loneliest time of my life.

Emotionally that period defined me and as a player the opening Test against Ireland in Bloemfontein in 2004 probably gave me the self-belief that I could be the best in the world.

“Victor (Matfield) and I played the Irish locks, who at the time were rated the best in the world, and we did very well. It was then that we committed to wanting to become the best lock pairing in Test rugby.”

Matfield, at face value, provides the brain and Botha the brawn in this lethal combination, but it’s an ill-informed view to think that Botha doesn’t think about the subtleties of the game and that Matfield avoids the collisions.

“He gives me calmness and I think I give him security in the locking partnership. We feed off each other’s energy and strengths and emotionally we know the other’s mood so well through having played alongside each other for so long.

He certainly can get stuck in if he wants to and I am confident with my understanding of lock play.”

Botha alternates between English and Afrikaans in the interview. Even though I ask the questions in Afrikaans most of his responses are in English.

He’s more relaxed than ever before and he trumpets the ethos of being a team player and not an individual.

Discipline, he says, determines championships. Discipline, he knows, is the strength of the Boks in Paris.

“We play a very confrontational style of rugby and it is very physical. It is understanding where the line is and ensuring we play on the right side of it. I know we’ve done that all tournament, despite a lot of off-the-ball irritation,” says Botha.

“Finals rugby is about keeping that discipline and having played in winning Currie Cup and Super 14 finals has certainly helped in our preparation.

But ultimately nothing prepares you for the 80 minutes and we can talk as much as we want, it all comes down to how we deliver [tonight].

“That will determine just how successful the last four years have been.”