Suc­cess­ful re­turn for Botha could fill void in Bok li­ne­out left by Mat­field

Satur­day Com­ment

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

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.

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