Botha’s Bok ambitions in limbo

Gary Botha’s desire to play for the Springboks has never burned stronger but he’s not overly optimistic about his international future.

Botha, who signed a three-year deal with English Premiership side Harlequins last year, had a difficult 2007 under former Springbok coach Jake White. He came on as an early replacement for John Smit in the Tri-Nations opener against Australia, then started in Durban and Sydney, before being dropped for Bismarck du Plessis for the final match against the All Blacks in Christchurch.

Du Plessis, who came into the World Cup squad as a late replacement for Pierre Spies, then overtook him in the pecking order and played back-up to Smit for the World Cup semi-final and final.

Botha probably wouldn’t have featured often, if at all, this year had White remained as coach. However, with the introduction of a new boss in Peter de Villiers and the pending announcement of his assistants, Botha’s Test career may have been thrown a lifeline.

The 26-year-old is, however, not waiting by the phone to hear from De Villiers. In fact, the sense you get when talking to him is of a man hungry to continue playing for his country, but one who has at the same time resigned himself fact that he may not be part of De Villiers’s future plans.

“A new coach brings new ideas and philosophies about how the game should be played, and what type of players he needs to achieve his vision,” Botha told keo.co.za from his London base.

“Whether Peter has me in mind or not I don’t know. He hasn’t made any contact with me about meeting when he comes up here (De Villiers leaves for Europe on February 8 to meet with foreign-based players and their coaches, as well as to gather data on Wales and Italy who they play in mid-year Tests). I can’t tell you what he’s thinking. To be honest I’m not holding my breath for a call.

“I’ll always have an allegiance to my country, and I still want to play for South Africa. If he does ask about my availability, I’ll have to negotiate with Quins [to return to South Africa], but I’d been dead keen to play.”

Harlequins suffered a pool stage exit in the European Cup, failing to win any matches, and a disappointing Energy Cup campaign where they lost two of their three pool matches. They are, however, still well placed at the halfway stage of the Premiership, and will hope to elevate themselves from sixth position to a to a top four finish.

Botha’s form in the European Cup was criticised by the British press, who questioned his ability to operate without the world’s best lock combination, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, to aim at.

“That’s an unfair thing to say,” he counters. “Victor in particular is one of a kind, the best in the business. You don’t have a player in the world who is even close to him so you can’t expect the same consistency we had at the Bulls. That lineout was so efficient that it skewed people’s perception of what a normal lineout should operate like. You’re going to make errors. It’s not going to be perfect all the time.

“Statistically we’re the fourth best lineout team in the Premiership and we’ve got some outstanding locks here who I’m beginning to gel with nicely. Of course I can play without Victor and Bakkies, but it takes time to settle. Don’t judge me now.”

By Ryan Vrede