British & Irish Lions
Botha slams 'unprofessional' O'Gara
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
July 2, 2009
Lions replacement Ronan O'Gara takes out South Africa scrum-half Fourie du Preez in the decisive incident at Loftus Versfeld © Getty Images
Irishman O'Gara missed a vital tackle in the build-up to South Africa's crucial third try and also conceded a late penalty that allowed Morne Steyn to set the seal on a series-clinching 28-25 victory.
Botha, who was capped 28 times by the Springboks between 1980 and 1992 and now works as a commentator, has questioned the Grand Slam winner's mental preparation and in particular criticised his decision-making in the final dramatic minute of what was a brutal but brilliant game.
"I thought that was just so unprofessional from a professional player," commented the former fly-half. "The clock said something like 79 minutes and 25 seconds when the ball was kicked into the Lions 22. All he [O'Gara] had to do was collect the ball and kick it directly into touch. I don't think anyone thought that the Boks were going to score from that lineout.
"But he decided for whatever reason to go outside the 22 which took the kick into touch totally out of the equation. Then he puts in an up and under and then he runs and takes out the man [South Africa's Fourie du Preez]. If he had only just jumped for the ball or tried to gather the ball but he didn't even try and do that.
"For me the tour will always come down to the last 15 seconds of play by Ronan O'Gara. I think he made such a tactical error that he blew the whole series out the window for the Lions. They should have settled for the draw and had everything to play for in Jo'burg. Suddenly they are out of the series 2-0 which might end up as 3-0. I think they deserve a little bit more than that because they have contributed so much to the series against the Springboks. But what O'Gara decided there, what went through his mind, I will never understand and I just think it was very unprofessional for a professional player to do that."
Botha, whose career unfortunately coincided with South Africa's sporting isolation, believes Lions head coach Ian McGeechan must also accept some responsibility for his side's series defeat. In particular he pointed to his decision to leave prop Phil Vickery on the field in the first Test despite a mauling at scrum time at the hands of South Africa's Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira.
"They lost the first one in the first 20 minutes," said Botha. "They should have replaced him very early. I know coaches don't like to do that because they like to believe it will get better but that one didn't work out. Sometimes, even after just 15 or 20 minutes, if you have to do it - you do it. I thought tactically they made a mistake because he could have always gone back onto the field because he is in the front row, it's not like he was a fly-half. I think that put the Lions on the back foot and they couldn't recover."
Botha, who won nine Currie Cup titles with Northern Transvaal and also had spells in Italy and the United States, believes those two incidents will haunt the Lions for years to come.
"They were more than capable of making it very difficult and I think they proved throughout that they were serious about winning," said Botha. "There are a lot of things that did not work in their favour. That's why I would lay this in front of Ronan O'Gara. They should have settled for the draw and said let's go and see what we can do."
A former crowd favourite at Loftus Versfeld, having played there for 17 years, Botha also heaped praise on the latest Blue Bulls and Springboks hero Steyn. The Super 14 winner made his international bow as a replacement in the first Test and produced a try-saving tackle on Lions winger Ugo Monye. But it is his contribution in the second Test, again from the bench, that will live longest in the memory.
"A lot of people were talking about the penalty but for me the conversion from the side was more important," added Botha of the 24-year-old Steyn. "We all knew that he is one of the better kickers at the moment in South Africa and now I think he needs to get a serious look in and he deserves whatever is coming to him."
Botha was capped 28 times by South Africa between 1980 and 1992 © Getty Images
Looking ahead to this weekend's third and final Test, Botha believes South Africa will struggle to raise their game again with the knowledge that the series is already won. "In 1980 we made the same mistake," recalled Botha, who helped steer South Africa to a 3-1 series triumph over Bill Beaumont's Lions. "We had won the series in three games and then we were all talking about how we were going to make it 4-0 or whatever. But Doc Craven walked into the changing room on that Saturday afternoon and said sorry boys, you are going to lose this one. We were very upset, but he said mentally we were not right.
"South Africa have won the series and secured their place in history. We can be nice and say it's going to be an important battle but it's not - the series is done."
The Lions' latest visit to South Africa has been dogged by controversy of one form or another and Botha is amongst those who believe that things could have gone better. "I think we made too many mistakes on this tour," insisted Botha in reference to hosts SA Rugby. "We should have played all the Springboks in the provincial games but we didn't and as a result we had half full stadiums. Ticket prices were also too expensive and I don't know who made that decision either, but it was a joke.
"There's too many things that we got wrong on this tour and in the end I hope it's not going to lead to the British & Irish Lions to re-think their touring schedule. I would like to see them in 12 years again but I am worried now that because of what happened on this tour that they might go and prepare somewhere else and only fly in for three internationals. That's not what we want to see. There are a lot of things to learn from this one and hopefully we will not make those mistakes again."