Bakkies Botha says beating the British & Irish Lions would banish a sense of incompleteness the Springboks feel.
Botha is one of a number Springboks who have won the Tri-Nations and World Cup, but, he says, there was a nagging feeling within the squad that there is more to be achieved, with a series win over the Lions the obvious missing piece in the puzzle.
After the triumph in Paris in 2007, a number of senior Springboks, including Victor Matfield and John Smit, who spent a season at Toulon and Clermont respectively, sought a different challenge with various European clubs.
Incoming coach Peter de Villiers made it clear from the outset of his tenure in 2008 that he would favour locally based players when selecting his Springbok squads, leaving Matfield and Smit, amongst others, in a quandary.
De Villiers’s personal appeal to those players on a trip to France convinced them to return, but Botha says the appeal of beating the Lions, and in so doing completing an international sweep that only a select group of players can boast, was central to their decision to return.
‘We’ve achieved a lot as a group and some players have had a lot of success with their provinces, but the Lions will be the cherry on top of the cake,’ he said.
‘After the World Cup the players already started speaking about the Lions series. Maybe some of them underestimated how much it would mean, but they soon realised how massive it would be to play in and possibly win a series against the Lions. Not many players have won a Tri-Nations, World Cup and a Lions series. We can’t settle for winning the World Cup. We want to join that elite group.
‘The Lions only come around once every 12 years. This is the last time most of us will play against them. It’s a massive opportunity for us, and one that we know we can’t waste.’
Matfield and Smith have both conceded that being involved in the Lions series was a major factor in their decision to return to South Africa.
Speaking specifically about the duo, Botha said, ‘If you look deeper into their return, it was a major life decision.
‘Their lifestyles would have been a lot different if they decided to stay in France. But that’s how big the Lions are because they were willing to give that up to be part of a Springbok squad to face the Lions. That, and the fact that there is such a special bond in this team. We’ve been together for so long we’ve become like family. Being part of that family is something you can’t replace.’
Botha was an attentive member of the Springbok squad who were addressed by a large number of their unsuccessful countrymen from 1997 on Tuesday. De Villiers hoped the group, who lost the series 2-1 to the tourists 12 years ago, would be able to give the current squad some insight into the mistakes they made.
Botha says the exercise was a success and motivated the squad to ensure they gain redemption.
‘Obviously poor goalkicking was the main reason for the series loss, but it ran deeper than that,’ he said, opting not to elaborate.
‘We are determined not to make the same mistakes, but I think we’re in a very different place to where that squad was. They just got a new coach and the squad wasn’t as settled as we are. But we know the challenge that lies ahead is a big one. We won’t underestimate the Lions.’
By Ryan Vrede, in Durban.