Botha bares the dark heart of pack that ruled world

South Africa's biggest asset reflects on World Cup success and tells Chris Hewett why he wants to give coach Jake White the right send-off in Cardiff today
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The Independent Online

Flattery is fine if you don't inhale. So said an American politician back in the 1960s, and Mr John Philip Botha of Pretoria, a freshly minted champion at his chosen sport of intimidating the hell out of opposition rugby forwards, believes he had it right. The man the Springboks call "Bakkies" might now be maximising his earning power in the English Premiership or its French equivalent as a result of recent exploits at the World Cup – heaven knows, enough of his countrymen are chasing the dollar – but for all the sweet nothings whispered in his cauliflower ear by the tempters from the north, he is staying in South Africa, where the air is clean and free of financial inducement.

"It's possible that there might be career decisions to make at some point in the future, but there are things I need to do first," he said this week, ahead of the last international match of a momentous season – this afternoon's one-off Test against Wales in Cardiff. "I want to remain a Springbok. That's very important me, and I need to find out what the position will be in the new era, under a new coach and perhaps under new regulations. Even more importantly, I need to spend time, proper time, with my beautiful young family. I have a wife and young daughter I've barely seen for months; I have a son who is just two weeks old. These are the people who care for me, and will one day stand around my grave. For any man, this must be part of his perspective."

Talk of the grave seemed just a little morbid – he is 28, not 78 – but it was an instructive comment all the same. Botha is a thoroughly modern second-row specialist: mobile, highly skilled, supremely fit – he throws tractor tyres around as a means of building strength – and perfectly capable of tripping the light fantastic when a match has freed itself up and there is some football to be played. But over and above these virtues, he provides the Springbok pack with its dark heart. He is most effective, and most implacable, when a contest is in its molten state; when challenges are there to be met and lines there to be drawn; when the competitive juices run most freely and the blood-and-soil spirit of South African rugby oozes from the pores. In short, he protects his own.

Early in his Test career, it was more a case of protection racket. He was a mean son of a gun, quick-tempered and handy with his fists, a natural troublemaker cut from the same rough cloth as Kobus Wiese, a rough-and-ready World Cup winner in 1995, and Moaner van Heerden, who, as the All Blacks of the 1970s would readily attest, was a real laugh a minute. Botha's rugby was unremittingly hostile ... on a good day. When he was in a really grim mood, mere hostility was his little hors d'oeuvre – something he dished out as preparation for something more substantial.

There is a much greater sense of discipline about his performances these days – the World Cup-winning coach Jake White, an unusually intelligent man manager as well as a supremely pragmatic tactician, insisted on it – but those in the Bokke fraternity who love him best still celebrate what might be called his Johnsonesque streak. "Johnsonesque? That's exactly the thing about Bakkies," agreed White. "Great teams – and I think any team that wins a World Cup has something going for it –have big players. It's not a size thing, although Bakkies is a pretty substantial specimen. I'm talking about big people, people who make an impact, who leave an impression on those around them. Martin Johnson brought that quality to England in 2003, and I see Bakkies in the same light. He's been one of the common denominators for us. During the World Cup, I took him off the field the moment I felt the game was won. Why? Because I knew I'd need him from that start in the next game. Why risk someone that important in a situation others could handle?"

Botha faced Johnson just the once, in a World Cup pool match in 2003. What did he make of the old scoundrel? "A difficult opponent, definitely," he replied. "He didn't do many things on a rugby field, but what he did, he did well. He was a 100 per center, and I respect that in a player." Did he see something of Johnson in himself? "I'm there to put on the damage," he said, by way of agreeing with the proposition. "If you look at my partnership with Victor Matfield [the line-out maestro whose remarkable performance in the World Cup final hurt England so badly], there's no doubting that Victor is the flashy guy while I'm the one who mixes it. Speed and mobility are parts of the game, of course, and I can do some running around. But I don't like to go away from my job, which is to make a stand."

He has been making his stands at representative level since his mid-teens. Born in Newcastle – the one on KwaZulu-Natal, not the one on Tyneside – he was educated in Middelburg in the Eastern Cape and then in Vereeniging, a short distance from Johannesburg. Picked for the South African Schools team, he played his early grown-up rugby with the Falcons, originally formed as Eastern Transvaal and now known as Valke, in the rock-hard and profoundly uncompromising town of Brakpan, which is not noted as a high veld version of Butlins. He now plays in Pretoria with the Blue Bulls, the only provincial side to beat the British and Irish Lions on their last tour to the republic in 1997.

In two years' time the Lions will be back down his way, and Botha fully intends to meet them there. A Super 14 winner, a Tri-Nations title holder and now a world champion, he has covered a fair bit of ground on the success front. Beating the British Isles collective would set a crown on a career already extravagantly bejewelled.

"I watched that '97 series – I was 17 at the time – and I recognised it as one of the ultimate experiences for a Springbok," he said. "The Lions visit our country only once every 12 years, so it's not everyone who gets the opportunity to face them. It will be quite a series and I'd love to be a part of it. We were reigning world champions last time, and we lost. We'll still be world champions in 2009. I'd like to think we'll do a little better on behalf of our country."

This afternoon's match marks the end of White's four-year run as South Africa's Test coach – his final game at Twickenham a week today is a low-key runaround with the Barbarians – and Botha will miss him as much as any of the current Springboks. Some of his closest colleagues have thrown in their lot with foreign clubs: Matfield is heading for Toulon, the captain, John Smit, has joined Clermont Auvergne.

Others, like the great loose-head prop Os du Randt, have called it a day (Du Randt has a history of retiring, but the chances of him changing his mind again are microscopic at best). Will the new coach, whoever he may turn out to be, pick a Matfield or a Smit from abroad? The situation is about as clear as mud.

"Yes, the future is unpredictable," Botha admitted. "But my first priority as a senior player is to make sure this game, Jake's last, goes well. Everyone knows that there were many issues in the Springbok camp before and during the 2003 World Cup. When Jake took over after that tournament, he imposed the right values from day one. We became a family, and I believe this togetherness was at the centre of our success in France. We owe Jake a lot – a hell of a lot – and it's down to us to mark his departure in the right way.

"Even on the night of the World Cup final, after we'd lifted the trophy, the players were talking about the fact that the season wasn't over – that we had this one last game ahead of us and how vital it was that we win it. We're not here on holiday, despite what some people may think. We have people coming into the side, including a new cap in Ryan Kankowski, and it's the job of people like me to help them meet the challenge of a Welsh team who themselves have a new coach on his way in and see this as an opportunity to impress him.

"Our less experienced players see this is a chance, too, and they will bring fresh energy to the team, but it's never easy to fill the shoes of a World Cup winner. Those of us who had the honour of playing in that final in Paris must take their responsibilities seriously in respect of those who were not so fortunate."

He is a formidable individual, this Botha – not simply because he has a handshake that wrenches the shoulder from its socket, but because he is a keeper of the Springbok flame. He is the very embodiment of all that is most intense and uncompromising about South African rugby.

There are those who believe the sport moved away from the masters of the dark arts with the introduction of multi-angled television coverage, and those who still see union as a game rooted in menace and coercion. In 2003, England had Johnson; last month, the Bokke had Botha. Enough said. End of story.