'Oom Bakkies' now a Bok mentor

Wed, 13 Nov 2013 15:11
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John Philip Botha is a true giant of the game, but it is the respect his peers and teammates have for him that is one of his most endearing traits.

John Philip Botha is a true giant of the game, but it is the respect his peers and teammates have for him that is one of his most endearing traits.

And while some may find it surprising that his Springbok teammates call him 'Oom', it epitomises the respect the younger players have for this 76-Test veteran - affectionately known as Bakkies.

Botha said he was "more happy than surprised" about receiving a re-call to South Africa's national team.

However, he said he never gave up hope of playing for the Springboks - having made his last Test appearance in a World Cup pool match against Namibia at North Harbour Stadium in September 2011, before suffering an Achilles injury in training that ruled him out of the remainder of the tournament.

He departed for Toulon in France soon afterwards, but rejoined the Boks in Cardiff last week - even though he did not feature in the 24-15 win over Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

"I said to myself every morning when I went to gym [in Toulon] I still want to play in the Green and Gold," Botha told a media briefing in Edinburgh - where the Boks are preparing for their one-off Test against Scotland on Sunday.

"I was very, very happy the day Heyneke [Meyer, Bok coach] phoned me," he said, adding: "Just to be of service to the Bok team is great and I am living from week-to-week. [I am] very happy to be part of this amazing squad after [an absence of] two years."

Botha's standing in the Bok squad was encapsulated by Toulon teammate and fellow 2007 World Cup-winner Bryan Habana.

"As a guy who has been around for a long time and having had the privilege to play alongside Bakkies for a good part of my career, to see the presence he still has in the squad is absolutely immense," Habana told the media scrum at the team's Scottish base.

"When he returned [to the team] that first week in Cardiff and to see guys like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth just looking up to this legend of the game," the record-breaking 93-Test wing said.

"It was pretty special to see guys like Siya Kolisi and Marcel Coetzee still call him Oom," Habana said of a respectful term often used by Afrikaans people to address their elders.

Those familiar with Afrikaans customs will know why they address Botha in that manner, given that at 34 he is more than 10 years the senior of Coetzee and Kolisi (both just 22).

Botha himself made light of the age difference.

"I don't know what to make of it when the players start calling me 'Oom', but it is great to see the guys still have respect," Botha said.

"For me respect is not calling somebody 'Oom', it is respecting each other on and off the pitch as players, benefit and feed off each other, and create a better team approaching the World Cup [in 2015]."

Botha said when he arrived in Cardiff last Tuesday he felt like a new player and a 'youngster' when he saw all the new faces.

"I am still catching up with the guys and the people they are - especially the younger players."

It was again Habana who spoke of Botha's status within the team and the value he brings.

"Even at Toulon, his presence is something that every team values," the Bok wing said, adding: "To have a guy, not only of the physical presence, but the integrity that he has in the Springbok squad, is really special.

"To add another guy with a wealth of experience and who has experienced something different overseas - who has improved not only himself personally, but on the rugby field has been a really great add-on to this team.

"The way he was able to serve, in that first week in Cardiff, giving life lessons to the youngsters has been really awesome to see.

"From my part I am really happy for him. I saw the yearning and the hunger that was 'burning' in his eyes when I got to Toulon - now to be able to sit next to him to see him have that opportunity to wear the Green and Gold again is a great moment, not only for me as a teammate, but as a friend as well."

Botha said he has not set himself any long-term goals, such as playing in the next World Cup, in England in 2015.

"When I arrived here I knew there were some great young players coming through, like the young locks," he said of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

"As I said before, I am taking it week-by-week.

"As long as I can rub my experience off on the youngsters, that is a big role I want to play.

"I am aware that I don't have another four or five years in me, the body is getting older, so for me it is a privilege to play that role where I can impart my knowledge and experience on the young players like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth.

"Then again, a guy like Flip van der Merwe has a lot of experience as well - it is amazing to see his growth.

"For me it is just great to be part of this and make a difference wherever I can."

He said that coming back from the French set-up, where they demand a lot of the players, he simply doesn't want to make any long-term decisions.

"It would be wrong of me to set long-term goals at this stage of my career. As long as I can make a difference everywhere I go, I am happy."