England v South Africa, Twickenham, November 27
Botha eyes silver lining to difficult year
November 25, 2010
Bakkies Botha wants to end on a high against England © Getty Images
South Africa's Bakkies Botha is determined to ensure the most difficult year of his celebrated career ends on a positive note with victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday.
It has been five months since the Bulls lock was jettisoned from South Africa's Tri-Nations squad after receiving a nine-week ban for headbutting All Black scrum-half Jimmy Cowan and he feels 'blessed' to have been granted a second chance to redeem himself in green and gold.
"I'm just happy to be back," Botha told ESPNscrum. "It's a second chance I've got and I'm feeling quite blessed to be still involved with the Springboks. I think through all my rugby career, in the 10 years I've been involved, this was the toughest year for me.
"I've had a lot of critics and dips but I'm just happy to be back, standing up and starting to enjoy my rugby again. I'm feeling younger, I'm feeling fitter. I'm happy to be on the pitch and give my experience to the Springbok side."
A desperate Murrayfield loss to Scotland ensured that there would be no redemptive Grand Slam for the tourists following a dire Tri-Nations campaign but with the defence of their Rugby World Cup title only 10 months away there is also collective motivation to take their opponents down a peg or two this weekend.
England have come on leaps and bounds in recent months and Botha is ready for a massive challenge after watching Martin Johnson's side dismantle Australia and tough out a win over Samoa. While Scotland's victory has been celebrated long and hard north of the border, the Springboks 'closed the door' on an afternoon to forget on Monday morning and have focused all of their energy on making amends.
"We didn't get the result that we wanted but we've closed that door behind us," Botha said. "We know it's going to be a very physical battle against England, they are a good side and they proved it against Samoa and Australia. They've got a good pack of forwards and some nice, quick backs.
"They are going to push us to our limit this weekend but the guys are looking forward to it. It's actually our last official Test match for the season, next week is the Baa Baas, and the guys trained well yesterday and are positive. We know we must give our all against a formidable England side."
South Africa's tour has been marked by a number of difficult incidents, with winger Bryan Habana suffering a broken hand a matter of days after Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle were sent home for failing drugs tests. Botha's long-time second-row partner Victor Matfield has taken charge in the injury-enforced absence of John Smit and his team-mate believes that the skipper's strength has been an example to their young squad during a troubling period.
"Victor has got a strong character," he said. "He's a phenomenal player and a phenomenal friend. Me and Victor have played together for almost 10 years as a lock combination. It's just an honour for him to captain the Springboks. With John injured, there couldn't be a better captain than Victor. There have been tough times for him on this tour but he has the character as a player, he lifts the team and brings calmness.
"He leads by example and all the youngsters are learning a lot from him. Victor is going to finish up his rugby career after the World Cup and as long as the youngsters can learn from him, the experience of the most-capped Springbok of all time is phenomenal to have in the squad."
Following their Tri-Nations debacle many commentators questioned whether the Springboks had been quick enough to adapt to the law changes at the breakdown, possibly missing out on a chance to widen their scope beyond a ground and pound game. Botha does not believe that this is the case and warned that they will be a formidable proposition when the squad is bolstered by players returning from injury.
They left South African soil without Smit, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger, Gurthro Steenkamp, Fourie du Preez, Heinrich Brussow, Andries Bekker, Jaque Fourie and Wynand Olivier among others and have blooded several promising youngsters, including impressive Sharks fly-half Patrick Lambie.
"I don't think there's catching up to do," Botha said. "We went on this tour and got results against Ireland and Wales but it didn't work out for us against Scotland. We examined the new rules when they came in but we've got a lot of injuries, although we can't use that as an excuse.
"There are some really good young players coming through and as long as they can learn it will be a big positive for Springbok rugby. A lot of things happened around the squad, especially on the end of year tour, but as long as we know that you're never too old to learn and we learned a lot of things in the last two weeks with Scotland and all the other things around the squad.
"After an average end of year tour if we can pull off a win at Twickenham it will mean a lot to the guys going into next year. Next year when we start all over again and all the guys are back then we can focus from there.
"In 2006 we had a horrible season as the Springboks side under Jake White and lost almost all of our Tri-Nations games. We turned it around the next year in France to lift the World Cup. I don't think we should worry, especially this last couple of weeks, it's been a tough time but the bigger picture is the World Cup. At this stage we're working week in, week out. We're focusing now on England."
Bakkies Botha works with ASICS Smarter Rugby, for expert coaching videos online visit www.youtube.com/smarterrugby
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Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.