Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 4s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
Bakkies Botha made his Test debut against France in Marseilles in 2002. Jean de Villiers also played his first Test that night, even though torn knee ligaments would end his debut after just six minutes.
Rudolf Straeuli was the coach and I was the Communications and Media Manager.
It had been a strange build-up to a match the Springboks were ‘never going to win’. Fabian Galthie, the French captain at the time, told Nick Mallett that in saying it shocked him the South African media thought a Bok team, as weakened through unavailability, as youthful in experience and as poorly coached, even had a chance against France, especially in Marseilles.
Mallett and Galthie were good mates and Mallett had influenced Galthie’s decision, early in his career, to spend a few months with the False Bay club in Cape Town
The Boks in the 2002 squad, had never played in Marseilles and, having spent a week preparing for the Test at a plush golfing estate an hour’s drive outside of the city centre, no player was prepared for the hostility of the Marseilles crowd.
The bus drive experience in nearing the stadium was intense. It was early evening, as kick-off was as late as nine, and the madness around the stadium was in full flight. France locals cursed the players when they got off the bus, spat at them, hit the bus with whatever objects they had in their hands and screamed obscenities in broken English and crass French.
Straeuli’s eyes were big, but the players’ eyes looked like saucers. The change in environment and atmosphere from the tranquility of the golf estate stunned everyone.
Players, pre the match, were shouting to hype themselves. Straeuli looked like a man just sentenced to the gallows.
Once in the change room, each time he looked up, another player passed him on the way to the toilet.
‘Listen to them,’ he told me. ‘They are screaming. They are scared.’
He added: ‘Smell it … smell the shit … we are going to take a big one tonight.’
Straeuli was right, and so was Galthie.
The Boks took a big one, beaten 30-10, with a youthful Joe van Niekerk scoring the Boks’ only try.
The French physically destroyed the Bok pack and early in the second half Straeuli had replaced his frontline props to ensure uncontested scrums.
This horrified SA Rugby boss Rian Oberholzer, as much as it disgusted the young hard man Botha. Oberholzer wanted the players to front, if not on the scoreboard, then at least mentally and physically. Botha, from the first whistle, had thrown himself at everything, legally and illegally.
He had been sin-binned for kneeing a French player at a ruck.
A furious Oberholzer awaited the team in the changeroom after the final whistle.
He let the team and every player know what he thought of the cowardly performance. The props wouldn’t look up, such was the embarrassment of the night and Oberholzer systematically worked through each position and addressed each player while Straeuli stood mute, and frozen in time.
No player said anything back. They sat in silence, bemused as much as embarrassed.
When Oberholzer got to Botha, he softened in his expression, if not in his exasperation of the situation. In Afrikaans, he, said: ‘And you Bakkies? I know you gave everything, but what the fuck was that? A knee to a face right in front of the referee. What were you thinking?’
Bakkies, still peeling the tape from his wrists, looked up and answered: ‘His face irritated me and it was there to be hit.’
The response momentarily broke the intensity in the changeroom and Oberholzer half laughed in replying: ‘Thank you Bakkies, at least you are fucking honest as to why.’
Botha had just played his first 60 minutes of Test rugby, and it was this honesty about the situation that would be a trait of his illustrious professional career.
After the French beating, the Boks travelled to Edinburgh to play Scotland.
Straeuli, paranoid and on the defensive, didn’t want the Scottish media or team to know his starting XV. He told the players who would be starting but also said he would be announcing a different team to the media. He felt it gave him an edge. It was a very misguided intuition because it only further divided, disrupted and dismayed the players.
Botha was among those dropped from the match day activities, but Straeuli still wanted Botha to face the media and speak with enthusiasm about his ‘first Test’ at Murrayfield.
I had to brief Botha on the absurdity of it all, coupled with the obvious disappointment that he would not be playing.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said with the biggest of smiles. ‘John Philip will play each question with a straight bat.’ He then mimicked a technically perfect forward defensive shot, in which the ball immediately gets smothered.
Botha’s got the most understated sense of humour, but his loyalty to his teammates and to the team he represents can’t be more overstated. You could be a teammate one week and he would defend you with his life. If you found yourself wearing an opposition jersey the next weekend, you’d fear for your life.
Springbok fullback Percy Montgomery and Botha enjoyed a strong connection within the Bok family. Both loved the outdoors and hunting and Montgomery’s father being Afrikaans also dispelled the myth, for the Bulls players, that Montgomery was an aloof English-speaking, soft and spoilt southern suburbs private school product.
Monty was, to quote his late dad a ‘MonDgomery’.
Monty, whose biography I authored, told me the funniest of stories about Bakkies and himself during a Super Rugby pre-season match between the Sharks and Bulls at Sun City to illustrate the competitiveness of Bakkies on a rugby field and just how he viewed the opposition.
‘We had been on a Springbok tour six weeks before that. We had been successful and enjoyed great times and now we were playing the first in a series of warm-up matches for the new season. It was hot and the matches were played in four quarters of 15 minutes each. There was a lot of rotation and it was more a hit-out than a rugby match,’ said Montgomery. ‘That is, except for Bakkies, who played every match as if it was the most important and his last. In the first few minutes Bakkies took an awkward pass and had to reach up for it, which allowed me to get my shoulder into just the right area to make a tackle. He was off balance and I had all the momentum and I dumped him.
‘No sooner had I made the tackle, and I was up and on the run. Bakkies was livid and he laughed back at me, even though I had said nothing. He told me he was coming for me and promised he would get me.
‘He spent the next two quarters chasing me and, sometime near the end of the second quarter, he got me. There was I was, in a ruck, and looking up. There he was, looking down. Boom, he nailed me, cautioned me that I had no right to make a tackle on him and then smiled, pulled me up and put his arm around me as he would do when we played for the Boks.
‘With Bakkies, you wanted to be on his team, even at training! As I found out in the heat of Sun City in late January, you didn’t want to be his opponent.’
Victor Matfield, who combined a world record 63 times, at lock with Botha, tells a similar story of his early introduction to Botha. Matfield was playing for Griquas and a 19 year-old Botha was playing flank for the Falcons.
Matfield told of how Bakkies climbed into everyone and everything that day.
‘He was more mobile in those days, but no less physical,’ joked Matfield. ‘I didn’t like him and when I moved to the Bulls, there he was again, but this time as a teammate.’
Matfield and Botha would become great mates, the most celebrated lock pairing in world rugby in the 2000s and one of the most rated in the history of the game.
The two were everything clinical, brilliant and brutal about the Bulls in winning three Super Rugby titles, the Currie Cup and for the Springboks in winning the Tri Nations in 2005 and the World Cup in 2007.
It was appropriate that Botha’s final rugby match would be alongside Matfield when playing for the famous Barbarians against the Pumas in 2015.
Botha had called time on a career in which he had won everything possible as a Test player for the Springboks and as a professional player in the southern and northern hemisphere.
Botha is the only player in history to win three Super Rugby titles (with the Bulls) and three European Cup titles (with Toulon).
Botha retired from Test rugby in 2011 to join Toulon and left with a legacy every bit as legendary as the one he had at the Bulls. Botha, who arrived from Pretoria with the nickname ‘Enforcer’ left Toulon’s Stade Mayole known as ‘The Butcher’. The reason: when you came to the Stade Mayole, Botha made you bleed.
Botha’s mentality was ideal for the French club scene and recently Botha told French publication Midi Olympique that he enjoyed the ‘brutality’ when playing in France. Midi Olympique voted Botha the world’s best No 4 lock – EVER.
‘It is the most brutal rugby I have ever played,’ said Botha. ‘A friend sent me an article in a Welsh newspaper listing, from 1 to 10, the most violent players in history. I was ninth!
‘In front of me, there was only Jerry Collins and French forwards from the 1980s. They wore moustaches, big headbands around their ears and they always had their eyes closed by a swollen black eye.
‘I would have dreamed of playing in the French championship of the 80s. It was terrible. If you took a hit, you had to give it back. Today, things have change. We leave the field for a black eye.’
I’ve mentioned Botha’s sense of humour and his response to a journalist on twitter in 2014 made me laugh out loud.
Botha, based in France, had wished the Boks strength for their Test against the Pumas in Argentina.
‘You are always in my hard (sic),’ wrote Botha in reference to the Bok players.
The journalist, trying to be clever with Botha, wrote: ‘You must mean heart Bakkies.’
The retort from Botha was instant: ‘That is the way I spell it … take it or leave it … BLESSINGS.’
The journalist acknowledge he would take it as being spelt ‘hard’.
Botha, despite his international retirement after injury finished his 2011 World Cup, was good enough to play for the Springboks between 2012 and 2015. He opted to give his focus to Toulon, showing the supporters he hadn’t gone to the south of France as part of a retirement package.
Botha’s form was so good that Heyneke Meyer, his coach for a decade at the Bulls, swayed Botha to return to international rugby at the end of 2013. Botha would, in 2014, play for the Boks and be a mentor to the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter Steph du Toit. The latter three called him ‘Oom’ such was the respect and Botha, in turn, declared the trio as among the sport’s best locks.
Botha would also finally experience victory against France, the only team he had never beaten as a Springbok in what was an astonishing omission in an international CV that ended with eight wins against the All Blacks in 15 matches.
Botha replaced an injured Etzebeth in Paris and despite the two spending a year together with the Boks in 2014, the two would only ever scrum down once together (for 19 minutes) against Australia in 2014.
Botha, in making his Test debut, followed the likes of Adri Geldenhuys and 1995 World Cup winner Kobus Wiese as team enforcers. Krynauw Otto and Johan Ackermann were also tough in the second row and Albert van der Berg was a very good lock, who could play at No 4 and No 5.
But when I think of longevity and consistent dominance and presence in a Bok No 4 jersey I think of Botha and Etzebeth.
In that year the two spent together in 2014, Etzebeth often talks about how much he learned from the old master of the dark arts and about life in those alleys and cul du sacs at the bottom of a ruck.
Etzebeth, who is in his first season at Toulon, is also a World Cup winner and, at just 28 years-old, has already played 85 Tests for South Africa. His next Bok appearance will put him one ahead of Botha and second only to Matfield (127) as the most capped lock in Springbok history.
I expect Etzebeth to rewrite every record there is for a South African lock, but there was something about Botha’s menace and magnificence that goes beyond any statistic.
With the greatest respect to Eben, and for all he has achieved at such a young age, I can’t look past the legend of Bakkies Botha for my #DreamTeam No 4.
And when it comes to the best Bok lock combination, Botha and Matfield set the standard.
As good as they were individually, it was hard to think of one without the other.
All Blacks Ali Williams certainly saw them as a double act.
Williams, when asked about the best lock he ever played against, didn’t answer in the singular.
‘Now we get to my mates in South Africa,’ he said. ‘I can’t just say that there was one of them. I think that both Bakkies and Victor had a pretty unique impact in my career.
‘Bakkies and Victor played so closely together. Bakkies was great because he always talked in the third person. He would take you out, put you in a headlock, smash you off the ball, make a high tackle, whatever it was, and then you’d hit him up after the game and say: Bakkies mate, that was not called for eh, you didn’t have to whack me like that. He would respond: Bakkies didn’t do that. I’d follow up with: I’m pretty sure it was you, mate. And he would stonewall you again with: Bakkies doesn’t do that.
‘The other thing that people may not know about Bakkies is that he’s always one to kiss. He loves air-kisses. He’ll look at you from the opposite side of the scrum and blow you a big kiss, you’d look at this 2.02 m big giant – and he’s no oil painting, that’s for sure – kissing you.
‘It was a scary sight in itself. Especially before a scrum, normally it would mess with your head.’
The kiss was just a forewarning of what was to follow because then it got physical, recalls Williams.
‘It was the ultimate challenge playing against Bakkies and Victor. Victor and I have become great mates and we’d always meet up afterwards for a few beers. Bakkies didn’t show his face after hours too often – that wasn’t his thing – which is part of what made him and Victor such a great partnership.’
WATCH: SOME OF BAKKIES’ MOMENTS
I’ve seen so many wonderful lock combinations line up against Botha and Matfield and, pre the Bok duo’s monopoly on lock play, there were some of the game’s finest wearing the No 4 and No 5 jersey between 1992 and 2020.
Fans in each country will have a favourite and coaches and teammates tend to be biased in selection because of the familiarity of playing alongside these giants of the second row.
If you ask the English, Welsh, Kiwis, South Africans, French, Argentinians, French, Scottish, Australians and Italians about their finest locks, invariably they look towards home first. It is indicative of the serious amount of talent that has played international rugby since I started writing professionally in 1992.
Who lines up against Bakkies and who forms a lock partnership with Australia’s John Eales against Matfield and Botha?
Once again, I could pick five off the cuff and they’d all have merits to the No 4 jersey. In today’s climate New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and England’s Maro Itoje are among the elite, who encompass everything special about the modern-day lock.
The duo, alongside Etzebeth, in 2020, set the standard as the game’s finest locks. I have also enjoyed England’s Courtney Lawes style of play. Lawes, who does play both No 5 and No 4 has adapted to playing blindside flank in the Eddie Jones England coaching era.
This quartet’s predecessors included Kiwis Robin Brooke, Norm Maxwell, Chris Jack, Brad Thorn and England’s Joe Launchberry, Simon Shaw and Martin Johnson.
Ireland’s Donncha O’Callaghan, Malcolm O’Kelly and Paddy Johns were imposing and Scotland’s Scott Murray was Scotland’s ‘go to’ guy in winning lineout ball.
Gareth Llewellyn (Wales) and James Horwill (Australia) consistently led the tight five challenge for their respective countries and the French, well, you could make a case for every lock who has played for France, and there have been plenty.
Lionel Nallet, Sebastian Chabal (when he converted from loose-forward to lock) and the Olivier’s (Brouzet and Merle) were just big and hard men.
No lock discussion could be complete without Canada’s Al Charron, who was as good playing No 8 as he was in the second row.
Thorn, for me, was a particular favourite. He represented everything that was healthy about the game of rugby union and previously rugby league.
I don’t know if the word ‘remarkable’ does Thorn’s career justice. I don’t know if there is a word to describe a 22-year professional career in rugby league and union, which started in 1994 and ended in 2016, with Thorn aged 41 years-old.
Thorn, in those 22 years, won everything in league and union. Collectively, he was the ultimate team player and individually he was always a standout.
Thorn, born in New Zealand, but living in Australia from the age of eight, played league for the Brisbane Broncos, Queensland and Australia’s Kangaroos. He was named as one of the Broncos best players of all time and enjoyed two spells in league, from 1994 to 2000 and 2005 to 2007. He switched to union in 2001, pledged his allegiance to the All Blacks and played in the 2003 World Cup. He finished his first union spell in 2004. In 2008 he switched back to union, won the 2011 World Cup with the All Blacks, won Super Rugby with the Crusaders and won the European Cup with Leinster. He would finish his first-class career in 2016 with two matches for Queensland Country, and would immediately go into coaching. He is currently the head coach of the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby.
In many respects, Thorn is the obvious choice to front Bakkies.
But I simply cannot overlook England’s 2003 World Cup captain Martin Johnson, whose career was exclusive to rugby union.
Johnson would play 362 matches for Leicester, represent the Barbarians on one occasion, play for and captain the British & Irish Lions in eight Tests and play the final of his 84 Tests for England in the winning 2003 World Cup final.
Johnson’s career, so loyal to Leicester and England, would end after 465 first-class matches.
I’ve waxed lyrical about so many opposition locks, but Johnson’s qualities as a player and captain gives him the edge over Thorn – and it is so bloody marginal.
Johnson as a player makes any side, but as a captain he is up there with the finest. He led the Lions to a series win in South Africa in 1997, which he has said was an achievement even greater than winning the 2023 World Cup and enjoyed championship success in the Six Nations with England.
He also has the unique distinction of playing for New Zealand’s under 21s, when spending a year in New Zealand as an exchange student.
New Zealand’s two-time World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw described Johnson as his inspiration and the type of leader McCaw wanted to become. There can’t be a greater endorsement and Martin Johnson is my pick as the best opposition No 4 I have written about since 1992 and the guy to battle Bakkies.