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Getting a kick out of the game

Submitted by on Saturday, 27 September 2008No Comment
Getting a kick out of the game

SA rugby icon Naas Botha talks about being a Cowboy, playing at Loftus, the infamous Springbok tour of New Zealand, clandestine talks with Doc Craven, a possible call-up for the 1995 World Cup —and being pelted with naartjies and a half-jack of brandy.

As a young player in the Northern Transvaal side, you were protected by Buurman van Zyl the coach; how did that affect your play in later games?

(Smiles) I don’t think he actually, ‘protected’ me. His view was that a fly-half on his feet was a lot more important to the team than one on the ground. He also instilled a winning culture in me. Winning was the only thing – I know it’s a cliché; but it applies when you play sport. You don’t play to lose. Buurman was very supportive. At the end of my first year with Northerns I hit a slump and he asked me what was wrong. And I told him it was confusing, ‘Everyone on my inside wants to tell me how to play; and everyone on my outside wants to tell me how to play’. So he just stopped it. He said ‘Sorry number 10 runs the show and that’s the end of it’. I suppose in that way he protected me, another coach might have found someone else; but he didn’t keep me in cotton wool.

How did you react to the abuse and booing from crowds at places like Newlands?

To be honest, I was never really bothered by it. When I was in a game I didn’t really pick up much from the sideline – I was too involved in the game. But I never had sleepless nights about it. In fact sometimes the whole desire to keep on winning was helped by it. Maybe sometimes the winning was over emphasised, but winning became a good way of keeping people off my back (smiles).

Tell me about the naartjies they used to throw at you.

Naartjies? Naartjies, apples, everything they could find. In fact at Ellis Park they even threw a half- jack of, I think it was brandy, at me.

Did it bother you?

No (laughs) – I’m still alive.

The opposite was Pretoria, where everyone idolised you. How did you react to that?

It was fun. But reality was always close. You are only as good as your last game. And the negative publicity outside Pretoria kept me in touch with reality. It wasn’t easy to think I was untouchable. Also I’m a bit of a loner so I never hung around places to be seen and to look important.

Tell me from your perspective about the famous ‘Morné Du Plessis tackle’?

Well he was never off-side, but according to the ref he hit me with his shoulder; so he blew for a dangerous tackle. Morné gave me a good knock – you must actually see that on TV – it was a bloody good tackle, or a bloody good shoulder (laughs). But then Pierre Edwards kicked the penalty and put them out of the Currie Cup, and remember in those days it was all about Currie Cup; so it was quite an expensive shoulder charge.

How did you for so long play for Northern Transvaal on Saturdays, then fly to Italy and play for Rovigo on Sundays?

Yup. For six years I played rugby almost every week-end, except Christmas and New Year. The most important thing I discovered was I just didn’t think. I know it sounds ridiculous; but I would play my game here – get on the plane for Italy on Saturday night, go straight from the airport, sometimes change in the car, run on and play and I never analysed it. I just loved every minute. Mind you there was no-one there (in Italy) to protect me. I was often the punching bag for the opposition (laughs). In fact I once tried to hit back and broke my hand. I then decided if you don’t know how to hit – don’t hit!

In the 1987 Currie Cup Final at Ellis Park; the ball was leather, it was wet and it was like soap, but in one of the great kicking performances you kicked 4 penalties and 4 drop goals to win 24 – 18; talk me through it?

Well actually it was all down to the Tuesday before the final. On that day I organised for one of the guys to come out and kick with me, but we had a huge rain storm and he never turned up. To this day I don’t know what made me do it, but instead of going home, which was the sensible thing, I decided to kick anyway. It was raining seriously, yet I kept kicking for over an hour. Just me in the stadium having to fetch the balls in the stands and sopping wet. But I know if I had turned my back on practising that rainy Tuesday, I could never have pulled it off on the Saturday.

Were you superstitious before a game?

A big thing during my whole career was, in my kicking practise I would take a kick – wherever, whenever – and just say to myself, ‘If I kick this over – we will win’. In 1990 before the Currie Cup final with Natal, I kicked the whole week not missing one, then I put the ball down for quite a simple easy kick and I got it in my mind that if it went over we would win. I missed it! We lost that match! (Laughs). To this day I still wonder what an impact that had on my game. And I tell you that 90% of the time, if I kicked the kick I had chosen as the one to decide we would win, and sometimes I chose difficult kicks; if I kicked it over, we won (smiles).

On the 1981 tour of New Zealand, why was Wynand Claasen the skipper left out of the first test?

Till today I don’t know; but I still believe it was a major, major mistake. I think it disrupted the whole preparation for the first test. And we played badly; I don’t think I played well. But why he was left out? I’ve got no idea – at that stage as a youngster in the touring side I wasn’t informed of those reasons.

That same tour, playing the infamous ‘flour bomb’ 3rd test, how difficult was it to concentrate on the game?

It wasn’t easy, but to be honest it also wasn’t that difficult. The problem was Clive Norling the ref. He handled the second test so well – not just because we won – he reffed well. But that last penalty in the third test was a sick joke. I don’t want to call a ref a cheat, but that incident was a blatant cheat – I will go that far. The explanations he tried to give were all such bull. It was a sick bloody joke. That just stuffed up the whole tour.

You appear to dislike Australia and like New Zealand, why is that?

No, it’s not that I don’t like Australia. It’s just; I believe the ultimate rugby test is South Africa vs. New Zealand. I don’t discard England, France, Wales, Australia, Ireland etc., but if you look at history, the Boks and New Zealand are by far, THE game. That’s not taking away from the 45 years of Bledisloe Cup. But if you go back, early years, Australia didn’t play the same part in world rugby as South Africa and New Zealand did.

At one stage you seemed to be the target of comments by Australian David Campese about your tackling – tell me what happened there.

That was during my Italian rugby period – when I was playing for Rovigo. Actually I think he made the remarks more for effect so that people would say, ‘Did you see what Campo said about Naas’. But it was not particularly serious. It was nothing really and me and Campo are still mates. The best way to quieten those chirps was simply to ignore them and then beat them (laughs) – which we did.

Tell me about the incident in Ireland where you were playing for Lansdowne u19 and you got sent off.

(Smiles) A little bit naughty; yes a little bit naughty. The fly-half against me was quite a nice little player, but we realised if we gave him half a gap he would take it every time; he did and we just kept nailing him. Somewhere along the line I got my knee stuck into him. But it was totally unnecessary – not the send off, but the knee. It was a little bit uncalled for; I somehow got him behind the head and put him out. (Smiles).

There was a rumour that Kitsch Christie spoke to you before the 1995 World Cup?

Yes he spoke to me. He phoned me and said, ‘I would like you to get ready. I might use you’. Not as the number one, but maybe as a second stringer; but yes he did call me. As it turned out he never used me and they still won (laughs).

What happened when you went to try out as a kicker for the Dallas Cowboys?

Initially I think it was a bit of nonsense – they weren’t really interested, because when I went over no one expected me. But I did finally get a trial at Texas Stadium – in pouring rain. After I had kicked they asked me if I had cowboy boots and a Stetson. I said ‘No’ and they said ‘We think you can go and buy some’ (smiles).

How different was the actual kicking?

It’s a little bit tougher – the ball is smaller. The most important area where you needed to adapt was you only had 1.2 seconds to kick. Sometimes you actually moved forward, while the ball was still coming back. So that was different to rugby, but the whole experience was definitely worth it, I got paid quite nicely. And I played rugby for the Dallas Harlequins. We won the championship, the first and only time I think they won it (smiles). But that is where I really learned about professional sport.

How did you as a young Afrikaner from Apartheid South Africa find mixing with the black guys you played with in America?

I had one or two run-ins. Oh yah. We played against The Rams and one guy said to me, ‘I’m not sharing this locker with you’. So I said, ‘You go tell the coaches, I’m not moving.’ Then one of the bigger guys, Randy White, stood behind me and said, ‘Any problems?’ So the guy said, ‘No’. That was the end of the problem (smiles). But I loved the Americans.

When you left you made a statement, ‘Craven is the only one who knows why I left’, why did you leave?

Until today yes. And until tomorrow (laughs)… he will stay the only guy who knows… (laughs).

When you came back from America you could kick equally well with both feet, how did that happen?

It’s not that I learnt on purpose. I just kicked more and more with my left because my right leg couldn’t take it. I kicked the whole day. Kick offs, punts, place kicks. So I became able to kick equally with both feet except for place kicks – I never learned to kick them with my left leg. But it frustrates me sometimes when I see guys today can only kick with one foot. As professionals they should be able to kick with both.

To digress from rugby, I believe your daughter has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), how has that impacted on your life?

Well I’m involved in helping the school she is at. Just last week we had a golf day which raised R103, 000, which was good. At her previous school we raised money to build a swimming pool. I suppose other schools will now want her as a pupil with all my fund-raising (laughs). But it’s a tough one – although fortunately she is not hyperactive. However she is fine, she is doing well. You know in our day when we grew up, ADHD kids were the naughty ones. But they are not naughty they are different. In our days they didn’t even know about it – now they do. But we are accommodating it quite nicely.

Tell me about The Hall of Fame you have been working on.

(Sighs… smiles) It’s been years now. While I was in America I noticed you’ve only really achieved something if you are a ‘Hall-of-Famer’. So since 1983 I got this thing that we should have a local Hall of Fame, but at the time I was too busy playing rugby in any case. However now we are close to finalising it in a resort down at Knysna, but it’s taken a while.

Why Knysna and not Pretoria, Johannesburg or a major city?

It’s neutral. You know, if it’s in Pretoria and a Cape Town person doesn’t make it, then it’s because it is in Pretoria – so being neutral is important. Knysna is neutral.

Who is behind it?

I am the driving force but we are a number of individuals and some companies. In fact we already have 89 inductees. We looked at International ‘Hall of Famers’ first.

Are you in?

Rugby wise there are nine in and they are all international ‘Hall of Famers’. I’m in the one in England so yes, I am in.

Lastly if rugby didn’t exist, what sport could you have excelled at?


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