- Former Springbok prop BJ Botha, who played for his nation from 2006 to 2010, talks about this month's British & Irish Lions tour and why it should go ahead during a surging pandemic.
- The ex-Sharks front-ranker reflects on the death of his national and provincial teammate, Solly Tyibilika, a decade ago and why he feels it was a "tragic let-down" from the SA system.
- He also assesses the two-Test series against Georgia, the first of which is on Friday, and explains why he would select Trevor Nyakane ahead of Frans Malherbe for the Lions opener.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the British Lions series?
BJ Botha: The fact that the British & Irish Lions have touched down in Johannesburg is great because it’s something we thought may never happen due to Covid-19. When the plane was delayed for two hours on the Edinburgh tarmac, some of the players were asking on social media if there had just been an update from Cyril Ramaphosa and they were switching off the engines and turning back. Thankfully that didn’t happen and it’s all systems go. I’m aware some people are debating whether we should we have sport on during a surging pandemic. My view is that sport gives people hope and something to look forward to and live for. People are dying from Covid in hospitals and of course one death is one too many but half the battle against the virus is the mental side of things. Sport instils some form of normality of life and I’m very happy that the Lions are in town. It’s great to see such a historic tour take place in the right place - South Africa. Unfortunately, there will be no spectators which will be a big factor. South Africa is a different playground now without the crowds.
Sport24 asked: How will all three Tests go down in Cape Town?
BJ Botha: I would say that potentially playing all three Tests in Cape Town is definitely not the ideal scenario. The Springboks have historically performed better at altitude than on the coast. From past experience playing at Ellis Park or Loftus Versfeld, you know it (the altitude factor) is coming but when it hits you, you are basically carrying your lungs behind you. Even if visiting teams don’t feel it, it’s something that is at the back of their mind. In and of itself that would be an added benefit for the Boks. However, if the Lions make the Cape Town Stadium their base for five weeks of tour and tackle the hosts there, the Springboks will adapt and definitely find a way around it. They are professional, know what is necessary and the occasion is big enough to get up for. There will be higher risk of a wetter game and you would think that the Lions are more suited to it. However, the game has evolved up north and most teams are now playing on 3/4G pitches with effective drainage. I expect the Springboks to fare well in the wet because from positions 1-8 we have athletes. Jacques Nienaber boasts a pack that can enforce themselves and play with the ball, so they will mix it up. On top of that, as we saw during the 2019 World Cup, they have backs who complement the forwards.
Sport24 asked: Any regrets for you from an international front?
BJ Botha: I wouldn’t say I have regrets from my career because I was very fortunate to have played for more than 18 years provincially but the pride was always playing for my country. Looking back, as a player you selfishly want to get to that 50 or 100 Test mark. During my career, I never thought about the numbers but if I hadn’t moved to Ireland I wonder if it would have been different because at that stage overseas-based players weren’t being selected. A torn calf muscle closed the door on me competing at the 2011 World Cup. Upon reflection, I feel that there were plenty of Tests I missed in the sense that I wish I had played more… I was coached by Jake White and then Peter de Villiers. I feel you can’t compare the two characters because they are on complete different spectrums in every sense. Jake was the first Springbok coach to select me and I knew exactly where I stood with him and what I needed to do which is what any player wants. Peter was in a different mould but was approachable and passionate. We had a similar squad during both coaching eras and the standards were player-driven. Peter was effective at managing people from different backgrounds much like Rassie Erasmus has done with the current crop. For me, that was the difference-maker and no other country could have used that as their weaponry. When we come together as one, it’s our advantage.
Sport24 asked: What can we learn from Solly Tyibilika’s demise?
BJ Botha: Solly and I had a great relationship at the Sharks and Springboks. Solly’s case is really sad and for me it was a tragic let-down from the system that was in place. Solly was fast-tracked very quickly to wear the green and gold. While rightfully so as he was a great player, his downhill trajectory was sadly just as swift. The support networks that players who are at the top need simply weren’t there for him. As much as Solly’s legacy lives on, we need to learn how to support players so that this doesn’t happen again. People can say what they want about the situation Solly found himself in post-career and there are many questions around the circumstances of the shooting. That in itself speaks massively about the place he was in. I would ask, “How did Solly get into a position where he was so compromised that he was rolling with guys who would end up shooting him in the back?” You don’t really have to think too hard to realise that he needed help much earlier. He was such a lovable character and could have been a stalwart for the game. Solly’s tale is a tragic demise of a guy, who having come from a disadvantaged background, could have done more for the game.
Sport24 asked: Who would you select in the Springbok front row?
BJ Botha: There is not even a question my starting front row would be Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane. In terms of Nyakane, for me, he is more dynamic around the field than Frans Malherbe. Rassie would have had something of a selection conundrum had Trevor not got injured at the World Cup. Malherbe has made an impact for the Boks at scrum-time and adds value to the lineout owing to his height but I would prefer Vincent Koch on the bench. The British & Irish Lions are going to be playing a dynamic game and aren’t going to arm-wrestle. The Lions will mix it up and boast dynamic, ball-running props and the Boks must do the same... Nyakane has the best technique at tighthead and next to Bongi, who is a very technically-sound hooker, that combination is important. Trevor was in and out of the Bok fold in the past but now clearly understands what is necessary to maintain Test standards and continue to be consistent. In terms of Kitshoff, he really matured as a prop playing for Bordeaux. I actually played against him when I was playing for Lyon in the Top 14. Over and above his play, his leadership is a big aspect that has developed over time. He has taken ownership of his role and not only in the front row but also of the team. He is also a dynamic ball-carrier which is what is needed for a loosehead in the modern game.
Sport24 asked: Will Georgia provide a decent two-Test hit-out?
BJ Botha: Ahead of the Lions series, I think Georgia is a great team to play against. There is no doubt that they will test the Springboks upfront. They are renowned for their scrummaging and can play the tight game. But that aside, I expect the Springboks to be hugely dominant from a backline and score-line perspective. I don’t think the Boks need to be tested to the 80th minute in games leading up to the Lions series. For me, building confidence within the group, having last played together in 2019, is more important. You also need to test combinations and with all due respect to the visitors, the home side won’t be under a massive amount of pressure. In terms of the Lions tour, the critical game is the first Test and the team that wins it will be on the front foot. I don’t think we should talk about a 3-0 series whitewash but the Boks have more than enough in the tank to take the Lions. I expect the men in green and gold to be too strong and I have no doubt they will win the Test series.