RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, discovers that Bjorn Basson is determined to move past a nightmare period in his career.
But reality struck as he sat in his hotel room in Edinburgh on a bitterly cold November afternoon in 2010. He protested vehemently that he had never heard of methylhexaneamine, the intruder exposed in his body. Nor, he insists, has he ever been tempted to ingest or inject performance-enhancing substances.
Basson’s career graph was showing a marked upward trajectory at that point. His excellence for Griquas earned him a move to the Bulls and a Springbok call-up for the end-of-year tour. He started the tour wanting to make a statement. He did, but he never imagined it would be one claiming his innocence in a doping scandal.
He was just 23 years old and naive. His incredulity didn’t allow him to ponder any deeper implications at the time. He was given a brief breakdown of the test findings, asked to explain how the then non-specified stimulant entered his system, but offered no definitive explanation.
Supplements given to the team were subjected to independent tests, and the results later offered Basson hope, with those supplements testing positive for the stimulant.
Basson, along with team-mate Chiliboy Ralepelle, was cut from the squad and unceremoniously shipped back to South Africa. His flight arrangements were butchered, compounding his woe, and his frustration grew with Saru’s perceived disinterest in his plight to avoid the media.
He lashed out and his press offerings didn’t endear him to South African rugby’s money men, who are unfailingly desperate to project an image of efficiency and bliss. He later issued an apology and seemed contrite at the time, prompting me to ask whether that outburst was a manifestation of his fear for his playing future. It seemed a reasonable root for his anger, and an understandable, albeit misdirected, expression thereof.
But Basson steadfastly denies this and contrition is no longer evident.
‘I never once worried that I wouldn’t play again or be suspended for an extended period of time,’ Basson says in a forthright fashion. ‘I’m not a drug cheat, never have been. Once it was explained to me that the stimulant was in the supplements, all questions were answered for me. My reaction [to Saru] had nothing to do with worrying about my future. I’m a direct type of person. I say what I feel. They [Saru] know the truth. I called it like I saw it.’
Basson found an unlikely confidant in Ralepelle, who encouraged him to ‘stay strong’.
‘He was good to me,’ Basson says. ‘He could have been selfish and worried about himself. I respect him for that.’
He would have to exhibit that strength in full measure.
‘There were people who would make remarks that I was a druggie. These people didn’t know me or my character or my values. They didn’t understand how the stuff got into my system. But they didn’t care. You get people who thrive on being critical and hurtful. You’ll never change them.
‘I’m sure there were more people who thought these things but didn’t say anything. Those who looked at my performances and then heard the news of the positive test and drew their own conclusions. There are few things that hurt more than when your integrity is questioned.’
It would be nearly three months before his acquittal, in which time Basson’s resistance to criticism was being slowly eroded.
He couldn’t even rely on rugby to provide an outlet for his frustrations, as he was barred from participating in any form of the game. Days were spent training alone or watching his team-mates being tortured in pre-season training and matches. He would gladly have traded his pain for the type they were experiencing.
‘That was the worst time of my career,’ he reveals. ‘I’d made a career-defining move to the Bulls. I wanted to show everyone what I could offer. I lost out on vital pre-season work and team-bonding moments. I’m playing catch-up now.
‘When I was cleared, the relief I felt wasn’t about not having the stigma of a drug cheat any longer. I was just glad that I could get on with life and playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the Bulls made an investment with the hope of a big return. They would have looked at my Currie Cup form and had expectations.’
Basson refers to his feats in the 2010 domestic competition where he shattered Carel du Plessis and Colin Lloyd’s 21-year-old try-scoring record, finishing with 21 tries, and reaching that mark in two matches less than the 16 it took his predecessors.
The challenge associated with unprecedented success in sport, and particularly when it’s achieved by rookies, is that it creates an expectation that such feats can be replicated consistently throughout a career.
When the dominant force in southern hemisphere rugby recruits you to fill a void left by Bryan Habana, that challenge is amplified. Certainly Francois Hougaard acquitted himself well in the position, but he has always been viewed as the scrumhalf successor to Fourie du Preez,
never a specialist wing.
Basson doesn’t need to be schooled on the challenge that awaits him, but success, he maintains, will be achieved on his terms.
‘I’m not Bryan Habana and neither do I want to be. He is good at what he does but we’re very different players,’ he says of the man he’ll be competing against for a Springbok place later this year. ‘He is more of an opportunist who’ll stand out on the wing and wait for chances to be created for him. I’m a grafter who’ll go looking for work, even if it’s on the opposite side of the field. My success has been down to forcing scoring opportunities for myself and then using my pace to take those opportunities. That’s the way I was taught at Griquas and it has been successful for me. I can’t change that now, although I’m open to growing other parts of my game.
‘The Bulls knew they weren’t getting another Habana when they signed me, but hopefully they’ll get the same results even if they’re achieved in a different way.’
Basson credits former Griquas coach and current SA U20 mentor Dawie Theron for his refinement from a raw and enthusiastic buck to one of the premier wingers in the country. Theron has no doubt his former student has the technical skills to succeed at the Bulls, but stresses that his temperament and match-winning ability need to be honed.
‘He has done very well at Currie Cup level and his next challenge is to prove that he can make the step up and excel there,’ Theron says. ‘There are few wingers in the tournament who can match his pace, aerial ability and anticipation. But delivering when it matters and not folding under pressure separates the good from the great.
‘He is in a team packed with players who’ve built their reputations on delivering when needed and that is contagious. The more time Bjorn spends with those men, watching how they stay calm and focused under immense pressure, the better he’ll become at copying them. The Bulls will definitely serve as a finishing school for him.
‘He must also prepare himself to be watched more closely,’ Theron adds. ‘South African teams will start preparing specifically to nullify him, and his try-scoring record won’t have gone unnoticed in Australia and New Zealand. His time and space will be cut down now. The Bulls have an obligation to counter that tactically and ensure that Bjorn is still a threat. But the biggest responsibility lies with the player, and knowing him, he won’t be kept quiet for long.’
Basson doesn’t share Theron’s concerns.
‘Towards the end of the  Currie Cup teams were refusing to kick to my side and were posting two, sometimes three defenders on me. It took some getting used to but I eventually worked out strategies to score,’ he says.
‘Also, the thing I’ve come to understand is that when I have two guys on me, there’s space somewhere on the field for team-mates to exploit. I think most wingers are selfish by nature; we want to score all the time. I’ve matured to understand that I can contribute in different ways.
‘Super Rugby defences, especially in the elite teams, are tighter and more organised. That’s my next challenge, trying to create space for myself when there isn’t any. It goes back to what I said earlier about my style of play – turning up in unexpected positions is key.’
Basson refuses to speculate about the future, specifically regarding the World Cup. His focus is on lighting up Loftus.
– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine.