Bakkies still in the frame
If Eben Etzebeth’s visit to a specialist in Johannesburg on Tuesday brings bad news for the Springboks, it could, in the strange way that injuries offer opportunities to others, bring a tiding of joy to the Toulon-based Bakkies Botha.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has admitted that veteran Botha, who made his debut for his country a decade ago, is one of the options that he would consider should Etzebeth’s hip cartilage injury rule him out of the test matches against Argentina in Cape Town on 18 August and in Mendoza a week later.
Botha has been enjoying his rugby in France and has been in good form, and Meyer has told the media that he has noticed this.
While Victor Matfield and then Danie Rossouw were the experienced locks that Meyer initially tried to bring back into the Bok fold, with Botha being ignored until now, Meyer says it has never been a case of him not rating Botha but just a reflection of which area needed covering at that time.
Etzebeth and Flip van der Merwe made him feel well covered at No 4 lock whereas that wasn’t the case a few months ago at No 5. With Andries Bekker now back in the mix and in training with the Boks in Cape Town as they prepare for the Newlands clash with the Pumas on Saturday week, that situation has now reversed itself.
“I have always rated Bakkies, and suddenly with all the injuries we have, we just can’t go in with an under-21 team when we are playing against the best teams in the world,” said Meyer.
“Bakkies has been playing well. I have been looking at every single overseas player, and I have always said that if there is a 50/50 call, I would go with the guy based in South Africa. But if Eben is injured, suddenly there are not a lot of four locks around, and I may have to make some kind of plan. I will definitely then look at Bakkies as an option.
“Franco van der Merwe was impressive when he trained with us there, and even though he is essentially a five lock, he can play four as well.
Another player I would have considered is Pieter-Steph du Toit of the Sharks and the SA under-20 team, but he is injured at the moment.”
Bringing back Botha wouldn’t entail the same complications that eventually stood in the way of Matfield returning, and neither should it spark the same level of debate. Matfield had officially retired from rugby when Meyer started negotiating with him to return as his captain, but that is not the case with Botha.
Indeed, in the last interview he gave when injury was set to force him home just before South Africa’s quarterfinal exit at the 2011 World Cup, he made it clear he was definitely still available for the Boks should the new coach want him.
Of course, considering that the call to Botha (if there was one) would take the form of a sort of SOS, it is interesting to speculate what would happen should the veteran roll back the clock and recapture his finest form. If he plays well it will then be hard to just drop him when Etzebeth returns to fitness.
Etzebeth has been one of the finds of the 2012 season, with fellow Bok Marcell Coetzee probably only just pipping him for that honour, but Botha, because of what he has done on the field over many years, has an aura that sends shivers down the spines of opposition players.
That intimidatory factor could just be what the relatively young and new Bok team needs heading into a tough Rugby Championship campaign.