Rugby Union: The leader of a lost generation: Steve Bale reports from Lyons on what the future holds for an enigmatic stand-off whose prime coincided with the wilderness years

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HIS PRIME years having been taken from him, Naas Botha is destined to remain a great enigma rather than a great player. To some - mostly back home in Pretoria - he was the greatest of his generation but now, at the crisis point of the Springbok tour, his many critics are queuing up to plunge in the knife. He is, after all, a South African Caesar.

The introspection of isolation has been abandoned and when Botha leads the 'Boks against France at Stade Gerland this afternoon he will be under closer scrutiny than he has ever been as the doubts grow about the wisdom of the captain's continued selection. All this at an age (34) when most outside-halves have long since passed their optimum.

Botha desperately wanted to be part of South African rugby's new dispensation, if only to compensate for the missing years, but whatever selection decisions are taken either here or next month in England, he knows his time is limited. He will scarcely still be around when France tour South Africa next year, nor when the Springboks go to Australia.

When he goes, as he nearly did after the Wallabies had thrashed his team in Cape Town in August, the rugby world will be the poorer for the absence of the leader of South African rugby's lost generation. But even so, we will still never know how good he really was, nor how good he might have been had he had the opportunity of regular international exposure.

Having said that, we can judge him only on what we have seen. His finest hours were spent beating the New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986 but since then Botha's achievement relates to little more than the prodigious length of his punting and the assiduousness of his points-gathering. As an outside-half pure and simple, even his own team-mates seem to prefer his understudy, Hennie le Roux.

'While I have devoted a lot of time to kicking, I also feel I was born with a special talent to do so,' Botha said. And that more or less encapsulates what his career has been about. Truncated though his appearances have been, his 280 points are a South African record; his 26th cap today will break Piet Visagie's Springbok outside-half record but imagine how many he would have accumulated under more felicitous circumstances. He has of course left any and every Northern Transvaal scoring record in the distance.

Small wonder that he tried to break into American football as a kicker, a lucrative but ill-fated venture that got him temporarily banned from rugby union and coincidentally meant that Errol Tobias, not Botha, was South Africa's stand-off against England in 1984. Botha had previously applied for a baseball scholarship to an American university but gave up the idea when he was selected for Northern Transvaal Under-19s.

'He is a freak of nature,' Lawrie Knight, a former All Black who is now a doctor in Johannesburg, said admiringly of him. Others are less complimentary - which is why Pierre Berbizier, the coach of France, gives the impression of being less worried about Botha than he would have been about Le Roux.

Having outplayed Le Roux when Northern Transvaal beat Transvaal, the captain is remarkably dismissive of his rival. 'For the past six months they have been saying that he is the best fly-half in South Africa,' Botha said. 'I took him on in one game and he was finished.'

Botha's own team-mates acknowledge that he contributes nothing in defence and his former team-mate, the respected flanker Rob Louw, is on the record disparaging the Botha style. 'I've played with and against Botha and regard him as extremely over- rated,' Louw said. 'His poor defence and inability to get involved physically often made him the weak link in the Test matches we played together.'

So much for Botha-as-god - a philosophy which does exist in South Africa, even if it tends to be restricted to Northern Transvaal. The myth was further undermined by David Sole in his recent autobiography, the former Scotland captain's damning opinion being based on his experience alongside Botha with the world team who played New Zealand last spring.

'I'm rather ashamed to admit that once we had seen Naas playing we took to calling him the traffic policeman in view of his eagerness to wave the opposition through,' Sole wrote. 'The England centre Jerry Guscott, who was also on the trip, says that Naas is the only fly-half he has ever seen pulling people out of rucks to stand in front of him so that he doesn't have to make the tackle]

'Naas may be a legend back home on the veldt but, in my opinion and certainly on the evidence of his performances in the world squad, he has a long way to go before he has mastered the skills that we would expect of an international fly-half these days.' A long way to go but hardly any time left in which to make the journey.

It does not end there. When the Australians were about to play South Africa in August Botha was savaged by the mischievous Wallaby wing David Campese for wearing shoulder-padding and still not tackling. And during this tour in France, the great man has been endlessly criticised in South African newspapers for his inability to bring anything out of his threequarters when playing behind a struggling pack.

But then he has for long had an uneasy relationship with the South African press. 'Botha without the ball is as toothless as an old hag,' as one paper graphically put it, may be a dismal epitaph for a distinguished career but outside Northern Transvaal - and Rovigo in Italy, where he plays in the off-season - he has never been as highly regarded as his golden reputation suggests.

A more fitting and generous tribute might be that he was the one who led South Africa back from the wilderness, and whatever his thoughts may have been during the years of isolation he is making all the right noises now that South Africa - and with it South African rugby - is inexorably changing. 'We cannot deny our past and we have to accept that we are outsiders,' he said.

It is a view he has repeated many times. 'We can really play a part in the unification of the country. I am proud to be a South African but when I used to overhear people discussing my country I would keep quiet. Now I will join the debate.' Meanwhile, the debate about Botha goes on.

(Photograph omitted)