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Opinion

Bakkies Botha was a bad, bad man

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Roar Guru
9th December, 2020
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7140 Reads

Remember Bakkies Botha? Opponents kept an eye out. Bok fans revered him as the patron saint of hardness. Pundits oohed, aahed, and scolded. Referees kept their cards handy. Teammates adored the man.

Recently, I ran the ruler over Tri Nations ‘grunt’ locks Matt Philip, Guido Petti, Rob Simmons, Scott Barrett, and Patrick Tuipulotu for one 2020 Test each.

In the insightful comments, I noticed a few names recur: a common one was Botha, mentioned as the prototype of a bruising tighthead lock. As RobC observed, none of the five locks of today scared him. I decided to look at one complete match by perhaps the scariest lock of all time, and compare one of Bakkies’ Tests to gain a sense of how efficient these nice modern big men really are, stacked against an all-time great no.4.

Bakkies was not a one-trick pony. He was fast; famously sprinting past All Black Jimmy Cowan, leading to a pullback, and then a nine-week ban for a Botha headbutt. He was not overly muscled; a long-limbed lineout leaper, capable of playing 80 minutes, and able to get extremely low on cleans.

But my memory of him was mostly about his affable bloody belligerence. I expected him to lag Philip in work rate, and have about as many negative plays as Barrett or Tuipulotu. The typical memory of Botha is that he was the perfect complement to the elegant, multi-skilled Victor Matfield: the sledgehammer driving the sharp chisel.

As a reminder, I divided each match in which I watched every action by each lock into ten-minute ‘chukkas’ and decided if it could be called a discrete ‘involvement’. Scrums were not a part of that assessment.

Then, I classified each involvement as positive, neutral, or negative, and I was strict. Most successful acts were just neutral. Because these are internationals. For a lineout or restart take to be positive, it had to have an added degree of difficulty (sun in the eyes, in traffic, or a bad throw, or a super challenge). A positive carry was more than just falling over the gainline. These are big boys; the biggest of all. I wanted to see power and results.

My system does not discriminate between attack and defence: a good tackle is the same as a good carry; a cleanout or a counter-ruck – or a kick-rush, or a maul sack – are all equally involvements.

To recap, these were how the 2020 five rated in one selected match, each:

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Player Philip Petti Simmons Barrett Tuipulotu
Total inv. 68 54 50 54 43
Inv/minute 0.84 0.66 0.75 0.66 0.61
Positive inv. 32% 42.50% 18% 26% 25%
Negative inv. 1% 2% 0% 7% 19%
+/neutral/- 22-45-1 23-30-1 9-41-0 14-36-4 11-24-8

Even though one game is insufficient to use as a statistical sample, there is very little way to fake your way through as a Test lock. These are not the whole picture, but accurate snapshots of a whole game.

Headbanded, frizzy-haired Philip was the busiest, about 20 per cent busier than the others, except quietly industrious Simmons. Petti contributed the highest ratio of quality. Barrett and Tuipulotu were both substantial comedowns from Brodie Retallick. Simmons worked hard, but had fewer ‘big moments’. Tuipulotu was sluggish. How would Bakkies Botha compare?

I chose a forward-orientated match in which Bakkies went wire to wire, and when Matfield shone. I reckoned this would give me a solid look. I watched every play of the 2007 World Cup final, won by South Africa over England 15-6. Eddie Jones was a quiet Bok assistant to brash Jake White.

Botha’s phenomenal numbers

  • 88 involvements
  • 1.1 involvements per minute
  • 35 per cent positive
  • 1 per cent negative
  • Ratio (positive/neutral/negative): 31-56-1

Bakkies had more involvements in the first half than Tuipulotu had in an entire match.

He was 24 per cent busier than manic Philip.

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He gave his team eight more positive actions than Petti; 23 more than Simmons.

He missed a tackle; that was his only error.

How did he do it?

Bakkies Botha of South Africa looks on during the 2007 Rugby World Cup

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

First chukka (15 involvements)
This was a brutal start. Both packs collided mercilessly. Os du Randt versus Andrew Sheridan. Young Schalk Burger flying into Martin Corry and his own teammates. Simon Shaw forcing the Boks’ Blood Brothers to ever-higher heights. Bakkies did more in the first ten minutes than any of the five Tri Nations locks did in any one chukka.

Positives: Bakkies dominated one tackle, counterrucked solo to win a turnover, destroyed two English lineouts with quick leaps, stole one only 56 seconds into the final, and singlehandedly smashed a maul back.

Neutral: he attended seven rucks, challenged a restart, and contested another lineout.

Second chukka (nine involvements)
Botha’s eyebrow was already cut.

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Positives: he made two back-to-back brutal cleanouts, compromising Phil Vickery, and forcing England to commit more to the breakdown, and dominated two tackles.

Neutral: he briskly attended four rucks, and won a clean lineout.

Third chukka (12 involvements)
Anyone whinging about scrums today must watch the 4-5 reset messes of 2007. The hit was too hard; fracturing most resets.

Positives: Bakkies poleaxed Vickery at a breakdown, and turned over the ball, stopped a maul drive with a monster push, split another maul – resulting in a Bok penalty for truck-trailer – cleaned a ruck brutally and low, pressured an exit so well the kick was shanked, and absolutely erased Jason Robinson in an open field tackle, causing a knock-on, and Robinson never fully recovered.

Neutral: he made two rucks, forced a crooked lineout that was not blown, contested well at another, and cleaned two other rucks.

Fourth chukka (13 involvements)
Botha was chirping at Sheridan. He was having fun in this tight game.

Positives: he counterrucked Shaw off the ball, clattered the Poms with a sickening cleanout, did two hard cleans in ten seconds, and finished a kick-chase by cleaning out a poor English wing. Botha caused mass early substitutions.

Neutral: he lifted Matfield to Icarus heights, attended three rucks, won a lineout, did a modest cleanout, carried up, and finished the half with a good clean.

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Honestly, the first half work rate and painful efficacy of Botha in the Paris final was mind-blowing. The difference between what Bakkies could (and did) do and the upside of the ‘basic good lock’ of 2020 was extreme.

Fifth chukka (nine involvements)
This was Bakkies’ finest phase. He may have saved the match.

Positives: he stopped another maul, but with less than two minutes played in the second half, Bakkies sprinted 40 metres to tackle Matthew Tait one foot from the try line, which meant there had to be a recycle to Mark Cueto, who was barely put into touch by Danie Rossouw. Tait was in. But Bakkies did not quit. He made a perfect tackle of the speedy Englishman.

Neutral: he tackled Corry hard, ran 20 metres to pressure a kick, won two clean lineouts, and attended a couple of rucks.

Sixth chukka (nine involvements)
Positives: Botha backtracked to save a stranded Fourie du Preez, twice in one minute, smashed an English runner, and turned another carrier at 59:14.

Neutral: he tackled, sealed, attended, mauled, and forced a scrum with an illegal counterruck that was not caught.

Seventh chukka (ten involvements)
Scrums were abysmal, but Frans Steyn gave fans the time back by spending only 12 seconds before a 50-metre penalty shot, to go up 15-6, and take the game out of reach.

Positives: Botha stole another lineout, he turned England over with a counterruck.

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Neutral: Bakkies was still cleaning brutally, tackling with malice, showing up at rucks, and contesting lineouts.

Negative: he missed a tackle on a halfback.

Eighth chukka (11 involvements)
Botha slowed down a bit, but still hit rucks and mauls with fervour.

Positives: he battered two Pom mauls so hard he caused a turnover.

Neutral: two proper cleans, a hard carry, a latch, a maul steer, a ruck mess, and a good tackle.

Botha was the real deal, and the Boks built much of their game plan on his and his mates Schalk Burger, Matfield, du Randt, John Smit, and the hard-as-rocks Juan Smith. The jump up from the decent 2020 locks I studied was eye-opening. The Tait tackle was a career-defining moment.