Wednesday 21 March 2018

Botha anxious to keep demons under control

Bakkies Botha celebrates South Africa's World Cup success with teammates Percy Montgomery, Schalk Burger, Coach Jake White, Bryan Habana and Butch James at the Laureus Team of the Year award presentation
Bakkies Botha celebrates South Africa's World Cup success with teammates Percy Montgomery, Schalk Burger, Coach Jake White, Bryan Habana and Butch James at the Laureus Team of the Year award presentation
David Kelly

David Kelly

Some time around 5.0 this evening, an imperious physical specimen measuring two metres and two centimetres and weighing in at 118kg will fold itself into a kneeling position in the new dressing-rooms of the Lansdowne Road stadium.

Bakkies Botha, for this is he, will say a prayer. In the Irish dressing-room across the corridor, many may be inclined to say a prayer also. Because when the man known as 'The Enforcer' gets to work, few survive unmolested.

And not always legally. Today, Botha returns from suspension -- a nine-week ban imposed after crudely head-butting Jimmy Cowan, the All Blacks scrum-half, whose only crime, it appeared, was to beat the second-row in a foot race.

Contrition was sought from above, but such a process has become not entirely uncommon throughout a star-studded career. His conversion began all of seven years ago after his, let us say, physical impact for the South Africans first became prominent.

A year after being yellow-carded for stamping on his debut against France, he was given a two-month ban for "attacking the face," a euphemism later graphically recalled by the victim, Australian hooker Brendan Cannon.

"Bakkies likes red meat, particularly on your right shoulder," Cannon related in an interview before the 2009 Lions tour. "He stuck his teeth into my shoulder and I was pretty struck by the impression his top and bottom teeth left on me. I retaliated and the subsequent retaliation from him was to put his fingers in both my eyes."

Botha would subsequently admit to gouging and he decided to submit himself entirely to the mercy of his religion; those who have had the pleasure of meeting will confirm that the phrase 'gentle giant' could easily have been designed to frame his pen picture.

Despite the almost cartoonish references to Botha as the team's enforcer, he did manage to effectively steer a course away from outright violence on the sports field. A three-week ban for an incident with Phil Waugh in 2008 was largely academic and another suspension for smashing Gio Aplon in a ruck was an exercise in over-zealousness, not viciousness.

That infamous shoulder charge on Adam Jones during the Lions tour was a laughable indictment, particularly in the context of Schalk Burger's unpunished aggression, the pithy armbands that vowed "Justice for Bakkies" probably embarrassed the big man.

Although controversy seemed to stalk him, he was now in a different space. On and off the field.

"There is a bad dog on a chain," he explained in an interview before that Lions tour. "If you go within a certain distance, he will bite you. I stay outside of that extended chain; I just don't go where I might get bitten. The devil still puts some bombs in my road, but that's fine. If you're not getting those attacks you're on the wrong path. If you're living a bad life, the devil doesn't bother you."

Yet still, as he reached his 67th cap for South Africa, not to mention the more than 130 appearances for the all-conquering Bulls, it seemed that every time there was a controversial incident, his craggy, yet innocent, features would loom large on the stadium's big screen.

In his 68th cap, they would alight unavoidably upon the face of a man guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Suddenly, 'The Enforcer' had returned to the uniform of caricature.

"Yeah, well, I'm not surprised," was All Blacks coach Graham Henry's reaction after the Cannon incident. "He's got a history. He's probably lucky he didn't get more than nine weeks." The prevailing mood was of karma hammering impolitely at his door.

And so Botha once more retreated to the bosom of his family on a remote farm north of Pretoria to wallow in contemplation. The result was an extraordinary confession to a South African Christian magazine.

"God is merciful and we need to ask his forgiveness only once," he said. "Unfortunately some people don't accept it that way and they expect you to repeatedly ask forgiveness. A part of the process was to ask God's forgiveness.

"I did that straight away in my hotel room after the match. And later also apologised to the parties involved. That is why I'm so shattered by the head-butting incident -- I allowed the flesh to take over."

Were it not for his recorded devotion, this may have seemed a bit like the hollow cant beloved of recidivist celebrities, whose offences of moral codes can be miraculously assuaged by a sudden conversion to Christianity prompted, of course, by one's agent.

At least Botha could justify his religiosity. Nevertheless, his return today will necessarily shine a light on his darker side. Which is a pity, for he and captain Victor Matfield are clearly the best second-row partnership the world has seen this decade and one forged originally against Ireland in Bloemfontein six years ago.


"Victor Matfield and I played the Irish locks (Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly), who at the time were rated the best in the world, and we did very well," he recalled during the Springboks' successful charge towards their World Cup win two years ago. "It was then that we committed to wanting to become the best lock pairing in Test rugby."

Matfield's role is pivotal in the relationship; more brain than pure brawn. "You don't want to douse the fire with which he plays. It's more a case of keeping it under control," says the senior -- by two years -- component.

"Victor brings a calmness to the game and hopefully we'll keep going until the 2011 World Cup," said Botha, as the old firm seek the set-piece dominance denied them last year when a late injury forced the younger man from the fray. "It's like a relationship we have and we must work on it every day," he said.

Just as he will continue to work with his demons. And so this evening, some time around 5.0, he will pray.

The joke goes that he does so in order to acquire assent from the Almighty for the damage soon to be wrought on hapless opponents.

In fact, it's merely to give a higher power his rightful praise for the talent and ability bestowed to him. For if he ever forgets that, he will truly have nothing.

Irish Independent

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