- Former England lock Mouritz Botha, who featured from 2011 to 2012, unpacks the poor timing of the Rassie Erasmus ban and the Boks being snubbed by World Rugby.
- The ex-Saracens second-rower runs the rule over South Africa’s line-out options and outlines what has led to the ongoing longevity of Eben Ezebeth’s Test match career.
- The current Ampthill assistant coach also talks about transitioning into the world of coaching and why concussion has to be managed so that the oval game is sustainable.
Sport24 asked: How serious is concussion proving in the modern game?
Mouritz Botha: I had concussion, which took a long time to recover from, and I was ultimately told by medical professionals that it would be in my best interests to retire. The spate of concussions in the game coupled with early-onset dementia is very worrying. I believe that if we don’t manage the associated risks, the sport will suffer as a consequence because parents won’t want their children playing and the game will become unsustainable. In terms of the legal matters, I wouldn’t like to speculate as to whether Carl Hayman and the other former players can win their case against World Rugby, but someone should be held accountable because there weren’t enough protocols involved. Players were stumbling around when they took a knock to the head, yet weren’t taken off the field. Even now, six days post-concussion they can play again which just doesn’t make sense to me. To offer an analogy, if you have people designing smartphones you should have people making decisions about withdrawing concussed players from the field. The reason you need protocols in place is because the player is not at all in a position to make the decision for his own benefit. That decision needs to be taken out of the players’ hands because we are all committed and want to do the best for the team and not leave the field. As such, that decision should never be with the player.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your transition to coaching?
Mouritz Botha: I had a good few months to mentally prepare myself for retirement on a playing front, which made my transition to coaching a bit easier. I dived straight into coaching and fully committed to it. I had a great experience with the German rugby team for two years. Unfortunately, things fell apart. The 15-man game in Germany is not in the best state and they are playing in the third-tier of European rugby. I also assisted Georgia, and am currently working as forwards coach of Ampthill who play in the English Championship. I really enjoy the chess side of rugby with tactics and counter-tactics. In terms of my coaching style, trends and statistics are aspects I take into consideration. At times, it’s not the best to play with ball in hand and sometimes the kicking game is better for you as a team. However, it also depends on who you are playing against, what their tactics are and how well they defend. You have to adapt and use the tactics which are going to get results.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the timing of Rassie’s ban?
Mouritz Botha: The announcement of the Rassie Erasmus ban is the worst timing ever for England. At the best of times, the Springboks don’t need any additional motivation and the verdict from World Rugby being released a few days before the Test isn’t going to help England’s cause. Meanwhile, the World Rugby award snub could possibly add further fuel to the fire. (John Smit was the only South African on the voting panel). I can understand the snub in a way because although South Africa had a great series against the British & Irish Lions and beat the All Blacks in Australia, at the best of times South Africa weren’t playing the most attractive rugby. I think that probably contributed to the nominations. The nominated players are those that stand out and I’m not sure in South Africa’s game plan that it allowed for players to stand out. In a way I get it on an individual front, but as a team the Boks have done some great stuff. My former Saracens teammate, Maro Itoje, is one of the nominees and certainly has a great chance of winning the World Rugby Player of the Year award. He’s a special player and a great leader. The 27-year-old lock forward is a marked man in the global game, but still keeps delivering the goods which is the sign of a world-class player. He has been nominated because he has been able to back up his performances season after season.
Sport24 asked: What are your memories of facing the Springboks?
Mouritz Botha: Of my 10 Tests, I played the Springboks four times. (Botha lost three and drew one Test match). All those matches were really special. Playing for England in 2012 in the first Test in Durban was a brilliant experience for me. It was a really proud moment personally, and when we were singing the anthems, I was out there representing two countries. Having been born in Vryheid, the original dream was definitely to play for the Springboks. But I moved to England when I was 22 because it didn’t happen for me as a professional rugby player in South Africa. I never played Craven Week and if you don’t go that route it’s very difficult to break into the system. After my second season of senior rugby, I decided I need a change in my life. I said to myself, “I have to try something else because this isn’t working.” I packed my bags and off I went. I worked very hard for five years and then got an opportunity to play professional rugby in the English Premiership. When I realised I could develop and become good enough to one day play for England, that dream was born. I chased it really hard and I was fortunate it became a reality two years on from debuting in the Premiership.
Sport24 asked: How does the Bok team of 2012 compare to now?
Mouritz Botha: South Africa is in a brilliant place at the moment in terms of the depth they have in their squad. The Springbok class of 2021 potentially boast the two best front rows in the world within the same match day squad. Having two world-class front rows, which are interchangeable, is a huge luxury. It’s going to prove an enormous test for a young and inexperienced English front row at Twickenham. Some young, inexperienced props coming up against probably the two best front rows in the world will be a huge challenge. South Africa also possess so much depth and quality in their backline. It’s a massive credit to Rassie Erasmus and South African rugby in terms of what they have built. I would say that the Springboks today are definitely a much stronger squad than the 2012 vintage and England will have their work cut out for them in the 44th meeting between the two sides.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Eben Etzebeth’s ongoing Test career?
Mouritz Botha: Eben is still only 30 and with 95 Test caps to his name, he will probably go on to become the most-capped Springbok of all time. It will be a great feat for a great player. Eben made his debut against me when I was playing for England in 2012 and, even then, I could see that he was a special player. He is a physical specimen and the way he trains is incredible. You don’t stay in the game for as long as he has unless you are a really strict professional and make it a sustainable way of living. He has been around for a long time now and hats off to him for his longevity in the game. Etzebeth is still quite young, so hopefully we will see him playing Test rugby for a long time to come.
Sport24 asked: How do you see Saturday’s Test playing out?
Mouritz Botha: With Jamie Blamire only having four Test caps under his belt and Bevan Rodd with one, I think England’s starting front row is definitely a facet of the game the Springboks will target. Statistically lineouts are the source of 50 percent or even more of a teams’ tries, so it’s another area the Boks will certainly be looking to dominate. I like the lock pairing of Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. Lood is a pretty experienced line-out caller and a great jumper. Eben is also a very good option and he is more specialised at the front of the line-out. Having Duane Vermeulen as well, who is a brilliant jumper, offers the Springboks plenty of options. The set-piece is what the Springboks have built their success on for a long time and it will be no different on Saturday. For South Africa, having that strong foundation is crucial and the scrums and line-outs are going to have a huge influence on the game. Upon reflection, I’m not sure England got their tactics wrong in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final (which is the last time the two teams met). Ahead of the final, I thought that England could expose South Africa defensively and that their attack would prove too much for the Springboks to handle. I was proven wrong. I don’t believe that England underestimated the Springboks, but the men in green and gold did a brilliant job in the final and England couldn’t expose them. Everyone thought that England would match South Africa in the set-piece, but on the day they didn’t manage to do it.