Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former lock supremo BAKKIES BOTHA discusses SA Rugby’s impending 30-cap foreign policy, drug-use in rugby and whether the Springboks will right the wrongs of last season.
Sport24 asked: What are your impressions of the embryonic stages of the Super Rugby season?
Bakkies Botha: I truly believe that the New Zealand sides are well ahead of the other teams in the Super Rugby competition. While it’s still early days in the lengthy tournament, the intensity with which the New Zealanders play and their ball-handling skills is mind-blowing. The Hurricanes, in particular, are a phenomenal side from one to 15 and have shown that they are not the current title-holders for nothing. The New Zealand sides have underlined their class, and the reality is that there is a big difference between South African and New Zealand derbies in terms of intensity. New Zealand’s style of play and tempo is developed from a young age. I believe we can get there as a rugby-playing nation and employ that type of rugby over time, but it needs to be part of our players’ upbringing. It’s neither something you can coach overnight nor something you will get right after one or two seasons. I’m not saying South African teams aren’t competitive – five of our six local franchises claimed victories in round two – but the bottom line is that the New Zealand teams are on another level altogether. They read the game so much better than some of the South African teams. The New Zealanders generally do the right stuff at the right times and they really think on their feet.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the Bulls who have suffered back-to-back defeats?
BB: It has been a difficult start to the season for my former team. The Bulls say they are still busy building but let’s be honest, when they came up against the Stormers in Cape Town during the opening round they were out-classed and out-played. The following week they were more competitive against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein but they ultimately let it slip. At the end of the day, there are definitely players that can produce the goods in the Bulls camp but they need to be selected. At this stage, I believe there are better combinations that can be selected in the Bulls’ backline but it’s the coaching staff that puts the team together. Meanwhile, Nick Mallett hit the nail on the head when he said that we are focusing too much on Handré Pollard. The point is it’s not about any one player. Pollard has come back from a long-term injury and we can see that he has endured a long lay-off. In terms of his play, he is not even 60 percent the player he can be. He is going to have to work very hard to get back to his own high standards. However, the Bulls need to operate as a collective force and avoid focusing on one player to alter their destiny. If the correct selections are made and they play as a unit, the situation is set to improve for the Pretoria franchise.
Sport24 asked: Will SA Rugby’s 30-cap overseas-based player policy, from July 1, limit the exodus?
BB: Personally, I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. SA Rugby have applied this rule because they are clearly trying to pin down young players and discourage them from leaving the country. However, the player drain is still going to be a big issue because the rand can’t compete with the euro, pound and yen. The reality is that the rand can’t keep up to retain quality players in South Africa. France, in particular, is a country that throws money at SA players because they know that we like to train extremely hard and want to win trophies. With this ruling in mind, a young player will say to himself: “Okay, I’ll head overseas for two seasons, see how it goes and maybe come back and have a chance to play for the Springboks.” However, he then enjoys the overseas experience so much he never returns home. I believe rugby is set to become a global sport and it’s starting to move in the direction of football in that sense. When national football teams come together they pool all their players from the different leagues around the world and start preparing. I feel that SA Rugby will have to continue to select overseas-based players because I don’t think we have enough home-grown talent in South Africa to prove a competitive force in world rugby. Some of our best talent is overseas and that will always be the case. How SA Rugby is going to find a way out of it is a mystery.
Sport24 asked: What are your expectations of the Springboks after a disastrous 2016 Test season?
BB: After the Italy defeat last November, I tweeted that it’s sad to say but no rugby nation fear the Springboks anymore. I wear my heart on my life sleeve and it’s upsetting to me, as a player who wore the national jersey 85 times, that we have slipped below Scotland to sixth in the world rankings. I’m not taking anything away from Italy’s achievement. Well done to them for making history but when I saw them drive for the corner rather than kick at goal, it was a simple way of not showing any respect to the Springbok pack. At the time, I had to ask: where is the pride in Springbok rugby? I truly believe that if the Boks were united and played for each other they would never have lost that match. My hope is that the pride and energy is still there for South Africa. I hope the players get together and put in the extra yards. They owe it themselves, their teammates and their supporters to work harder and get better. The Springboks have plenty to prove this season and hopefully they can change their fortunes around starting with the three-Test series against France in June. However, the French won’t be easy-beats. They have looked very impressive in the Six Nations and play a pragmatic brand of rugby under Guy Noves. South Africa will definitely be tested but if we think back to a year ago, we are already one step further as far as our preparation is concerned. The first national training camp has been completed and it will aid the camaraderie, communication and collective planning. I am a positive individual, and foresee the Springboks bouncing back this season.
Sport24 asked: Dan Vickerman sadly committed suicide. What are your abiding memories of him?
BB: I didn’t know Dan all that well away from the rugby field but I was aware that he was a good bloke. In terms of memories I have of him – I enjoyed the Test matches and Super Rugby fixtures I played against him. It’s tragic that he took his own life and underlines that you never know what is going on in someone else’s personal life. There are reports that he suffered from depression post his rugby career and that he was struggling to transition to the real world. The biggest lesson I learned is that rugby can’t be your life but part of your life. There are so many players out there who regard rugby as their whole life. And when they retire, they don’t have an identity and are an empty shell. Players can fall into a hole and feel lost without all the attention from the supporters and the media. While I’m not referring to Vickerman, some players relish the limelight, the cameras and the live TV interviews. The day I retired from the rugby I knew I had something I could wake up to the next morning and go on with my life because rugby didn’t define me. I put my focus and energy into something new – my passion for farming and conservation. My message to current players is: the day you stop playing rugby you need to pursue a path in life that will give you purpose and direction.
Sport24 asked: Ali Williams and James O’Connor have hit the headlines. Is drug-use rife in rugby?
BB: I can honestly say that during my professional playing career, I was never around players who used substances but you hear stories. Ali’s arrest and charge for drug possession is a sad affair. The New Zealander was my last lock partner and I would urge him to be strong during this trying time. It takes a man to acknowledge you made a mistake and we are all only human. Meanwhile, O’Connor is a talented rugby player but, if you look at his history, he has made some off-field mistakes. Young guys, especially like O’Connor, require guidance from others to ensure that they make the correct decisions for their futures. I wasn’t perfect during my career, and made a few on-field mistakes, but I learned from my errors. It doesn’t matter what you achieve in life and who you are. You always need to stay humble, keep your feet on the ground and work hard. I carry those words with me every day.
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