Upon his return to Test rugby, Bakkies Botha will need to prove to his country and team-mates why he’s no longer a disciplinary liability.
There’s no excuse for foul play, especially since a punch off the ball, an eye-gouge at the bottom of a ruck and a headbutt in back play don’t go unnoticed in the professional era. This is not the old days when TV had no influence and such combat was considered part and parcel of the game.
Test players don’t just compete in front of sell-out crowds, but in front of millions of viewers around the globe. The sport generates big money, and while the players have a responsibility to their employers, they also have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t send out the wrong message to rugby’s next generation.
It’s been four days since Bakkies Botha headbutted Jimmy Cowan in the opening minute of the Test between New Zealand and South Africa. It’s been three since the Springbok lock was banned for nine weeks. The last three days have witnessed an apology by Botha to his team, country and family, as well as various media and public responses to an unacceptable example of barbarism.
In his latest act of contrition on live TV, Botha gave a tearful apology for what he did to Cowan. There’s no doubt that he regrets what he did.
Botha’s headbutt has evoked emotional reactions from the South African media and public. Most believe he should be banned for longer than nine weeks, while some international scribes, in describing the latest incident as yet another in a series of off-the-ball fouls, think Botha should be banned for good.
Some, like Bok coach Peter de Villiers, have blamed the New Zealand’s Sky TV producers for repeating the incident over and over on the Eden Park big screen, but neglecting to show what prompted Botha to attack. De Villiers’ show of support has been commended by his followers, but there’s no logic in his argument.
If referee Alan Lewis had seen Cowan holding Botha’s jersey, he would have penalised the All Blacks scrumhalf. If he had heard from his touch judge, who was in a good position to see the incident, after play had broke down, he would have penalised Cowan. But would that have made it OK for Botha to headbutt Cowan? And does an official’s failure to see a transgression give a player the right to dish out his own justice? Surely not.
Botha’s act must be condemned, but it should be condemned for the act that it is. He got off light with a nine-week ban. Players often cop a suspension for spear-tackling, and as has been the case with Botha, an illegal clearance at the ruck. These players are suspended for inaccuracy as much as excessive aggression. They are still trying to make a tackle or a clearance, which is part of the game, but are banned when they get it wrong.
A punch, a headbutt or an eye-gouge is not part of the game. It’s a deliberate act intended to hurt the opposition. It’s inexcusable. You can’t say you were trying to do something that was within the laws but failed in your accuracy. If you use your head, your fists or your fingers, you have only one outcome in mind.
Now that the emotion that erupted on Saturday has died down, people need to consider these cold hard facts. Yes Botha was suspended twice in the last year for what was perceived as an illegal clearance at a ruck. Did that make him a dirty player? No. Botha’s now been suspended for headbutting. Does that make him a player who resorts to such violent acts? By the video evidence of the incident, the answer is yes, although his previous offences for clearing players at the ruck should not factor into the judgment.
Botha’s sorry, but the nature of the transgression means it’s not so easy to forgive and forget. There’s a reason he’s celebrated as South Africa’s enforcer and not because he headbutts the opposition off the ball. He can still offer the Boks a physical option within the laws of the game, but it will be difficult to shrug the image he’s created.
Another question that people may be dying to have answered is why now? How can a player as decorated and experienced as Botha be guilty of such a thoughtless and violent act, an act far beyond big tackles and rough clearances?
This wasn’t an out-of-sight headbutt, but a vicious nudge delivered in plain sight. As one of the team’s leaders, what was he thinking? In the early part of his career, Botha resisted the urge to give those arrogant halfbacks George Gregan and Justin Marshall a clout, so why succumb after one instance of jersey-tugging by Cowan?
Some feel that it’s because he’s celebrated as the team’s enforcer that you can’t blame him for robust behaviour, but again, there’s no point in blaming the media for the perception. Botha’s the one admitting to goosebumps on the eve of a particularly physical Test, and he’s the one responsible for his own actions on the field.
He must now accept the fact that his reputation will be tarnished by this one incident, and that he will have a lot to prove to his team-mates and country upon his return. His fantastic service to the Boks won’t be forgotten because of one incident, but he will spend the rest of his career proving that he’s not a dirty player, and that he’s not a disciplinary liability.
Botha’s been punished and shown remorse, but his greatest challenge on his return will be proving himself worthy of a place in team that’s worked so hard to eradicate an image of indiscipline.
By Jon Cardinelli