A step too far
July 13, 2010
Bakkies Botha: out of the Tri-Nations © Getty Images
On Sunday night, sports fans around the world watched the Netherlands, under the steam of Kung-Fu enthusiast Nigel de Jong and the habitually fractious Mark van Bommel, attempt to bully their way to victory over Spain in the FIFA World Cup final in Johannesburg.
Too classy, too exspressive, Spain had the goods to prevail, but not until a record 14 yellow cards, two equalling a cumulative red for Johnny Heitinga, had been produced by English official Howard Webb. The 'filthy final' may have featured 13 more flashes of yellow and dominated the world's attention over the All Blacks' superb 32-12 win over the Springboks in Auckland on Saturday, but there remain parallels between the contests.
Enter Bakkies Botha, clad in the mind's eye in a pantomime cape and twirling a suitably evil moustache. The Bulls lock's headbutt on All Black Jimmy Cowan deserved every ounce of bile and vitriol slung at it in the Sunday papers and marked an interesting shift in perception.
Cast your mind back to this time in 2009 when Botha, a deeply religious and devoted family man, was confined to the stands after copping a two-week ban for an illegal clearout on British & Irish Lions lock Adam Jones. On this occasion, Botha was widely judged to have been unfairly treated by the judiciary. Jones, dislocated shoulder in a sling, completely exonerated his opponent.
The Springboks later fell out with the IRB over their pompous 'Justice 4 Bakkies' armbands in the third Test against the tourists, but by the time of Botha's return for the Tri-Nations his stature within the game as the premier 'enforcer' had grown considerably. The hype was backed up with a clutch of menacing displays against the All Blacks in Bloemfontein and Durban, when Isaac Ross and Brad Thorn were harassed to within an inch of their lives.
"I'm loving carrying that [enforcer] label" Botha said. "It's like Victor Matfield carrying the lineout label, that's why we're such a formidable combination. It's what I've done for the last nine years. I'm not going to change and look for grubbers and kicks through the backline and chase them, that's not my job, okay. I'm just going to hit the rucks and do it 100 %. That's the game I love."
And we loved him for it. This was a man who in recent seasons had been banned for 'attacking the face' of Wallabies hooker Brendan Cannon and was binned on his Test debut for stamping. Crucially, though, during 2009 Botha kept both feet very much behind the line. In the opening minutes of Saturday's game, he crossed it and has paid heavily for it with a nine-week ban and universal scorn.
His Tri-Nations over, Botha has been slammed by the press and his team-mates, Bok skipper John Smit criticising his ego, and is for the first time staring down the barrel in terms of his Test future. The experienced Danie Rossouw is his designated replacement for the return match in Wellington, offering work-rate and graft rather than Botha's ruthless physicality.
It is a change in style and could provide added go-forward for a pack that will have been licking their wounds, for the first time in a while, this week. Despite Botha's keyed-up start to the game, the Springboks lost the forward battle in every phase of the game. They went backwards in the scrum, their maul was nullified tactically and through a succession of quick throws and accuracy on their own ball the All Blacks were never under pressure at the lineout.
A brooding, vengeful Botha would normally have been a major boost to the Springboks as they look to secure a first win at Westpac Stadium at the weekend. As it stands however his latest indiscretion, which follows hot on the heels of a suspension for a dangerous charge on Bok team-mate Gio Aplon in a Super 14 match, lends weight to the claims of the in-form Rossouw and the giant Andries Bekker. Indeed, Bekker's recent performances have far outsripped Botha's for effectiveness both at the set-piece and, for the first time in the 26-year-old's career, the loose.
Botha has proven on this occasion that stopping the fuse is difficult. The visitors need to play smart, fluent rugby to trouble New Zealand. Botha's performance last weekend was neither and he now must fear for his place at the top table at the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.