Successful return for Botha could fill void in Bok lineout left by Matfield
UGBY players aren’t noted to be the most sincere and genuine people when it comes to press conferences and answering questions from the media. They can’t afford to be.
It is one of the drawbacks of this job that sometimes you have to ask questions you know can’t be answered honestly if the player wants to stay on the right side of administrators and coaches.
However, when you have been in the business a bit, you start to develop a sixth sense for when a player is being sincere. Bryan Habana would have had to be an extremely good actor to carry off his little speech about Bakkies Botha at a press conference in the team hotel here in Edinburgh this past week had he not meant it.
It has all been reported fully, but to paraphrase what Habana said: he was astounded at the impact that his new teammate at French club Toulon has had on the Bok squad; and the clear affection he has for Botha, who was sitting alongside him, was clear to see.
“When I got to Toulon I could see that there was still a deep hunger burning in Bakkies’ eyes,” said Habana.
Coach Heyneke Meyer followed up later in the week by saying something similar, as have a smattering of additional players. The message that has come across quite clearly is the following – Botha is a player of influence who commands huge respect and who has experience that rubs off on us.
Even the locks who you would imagine might become uncomfortable at the prospect of Botha returning to oust them from the team have spoken only about what they have learned from him and the value he can add as a mentor.
That has been helped, or so one of the players told me, by the fact that Meyer has been open and honest with all the locks, and told them exactly where they stand in the pecking order.
So where does Botha stand in the pecking order?
We will only know tomorrow, because that is when he faces his litmus test. Meyer has been impressed with him at training and in his willingness to serve off the field, but it is only when he plays that Botha will prove that he still has it in him to play international rugby.
But what has emerged, and I have to admit that initially I wasn’t crazy about the idea of Botha returning, is that there may be more method to Botha’s return than just the mentorship role that he can play to the young locks.
If he plays well tomorrow, it could bring to an end the consternation that Meyer has felt since he started in the job about the void left in the middle of the lineout by Victor Matfield’s retirement.
The coach told the team announcement press conference that he would like to try Eben Etzebeth at No 5 at some
Rstage, and as that is where Etzebeth played most of his junior rugby, it makes sense. He is certainly athletic enough for the position, and his lineout work is up to standard.
Etzebeth has played exclusively at No 4 since making his international debut against England in June last year, but having Botha make a strong return to international rugby tomorrow, and present himself as a viable option at the front of the lineout and as the so-called driving lock, will make it possible for the Stormers player to be added to the options at No 5.
Meyer said he was strongly considering playing Etzebeth there in tomorrow’s game, but in the end decided against it because he respects Scotland as a lineout unit and, having a relative youngster running the lineout on the day Botha returns after a long absence, would entail a huge element of risk.
It was the same reasoning that eventually saw him decide against giving PieterSteph du Toit a chance to add to the international experience he picked up in his brief cameo appearance as a late replacement in Cardiff last week.
It was assumed that Botha would be able to guide Du Toit, but that wouldn’t make sense if you consider that it is supposed to be the No 5 who takes the responsibility of running the lineout.
I would argue that if you can run a lineout well enough to win a Currie Cup final, which is effectively what Du Toit did in Cape Town a few weeks ago, you should be good enough to beat Scotland.
But Meyer’s point is nonetheless a valid one, and the need for some experience as bench back-up has seen Du Toit drop right out of the match 23.
Meyer does have a plan for Du Toit, and let’s not forget how young he is. The Boks already have one young newcomer in the tight five in the form of Frans Malherbe. Du Toit’s time will come, and thanks to the presence of Botha and Flip van der Merwe’s ability to move back to four, he could find himself competing with Etzebeth for a place.
Botha has added to Meyer’s options, and if it means there is less need to send SOS calls to the now two-years retired Matfield, it is a good thing. At least Botha has still been playing these past two years and he is 34 as opposed to Matfield’s 36.