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Wed Apr 16 07:24:54 SAST 2014

Streamlined Bakkies avoids the fisticuffs

Jean Smyth | 03 June, 2012 10:100 Comments
Toulon's South African flanker and captain Joe van Niekerk, left, celebrates with lock Bakkies Botha after beating Toulouse 25-22 on May 5

Botha's focus is on helping Toulon reach the final of the Top 14 in France, writes Jean Smyth

NOT many folk move to France and drop a waist size. So when Springbok lock Bakkies Botha tells the Sunday Times he's lost 7kg since his move to one of the most physical leagues in world rugby, an alarm bell sounds immediately.

"I'm not 123 or 124kg any more," he says with good cheer. "But now rather around about the 115-16 mark. It's great, I feel really good and healthy."

Playing in a Toulon pack alongside Carl Hayman, Simon Shaw, Steffon Armitage and, from stamping grounds closer to home, Joe van Niekerk, he can probably concede a few pounds as it's certainly not short on heavy artillery.

After problems with an Achilles tendon injury that cut short his Rugby World Cup, Botha's now taking care of himself.

"At the age of 33, to be 123kg, I felt I needed to drop a few kilograms and I definitely feel the difference. I'm more mobile and more of an athlete now."

When we speak to Botha it's late and he's just finished packing boxes after moving to another house within the small, achingly beautiful town of Carqueiranne near Toulon, the club for which he plays.

Botha and his family love the lifestyle on the French Riviera and he's certainly not a player who's gone there to slack off, or as the locals say, to tranquille.

His focus is such that he doesn't spend too much time on what's happening back home, though his interest has just been piqued with the England squad arriving in SA to take on the Springboks in the first of three tests starting in Durban on Saturday.

"Heyneke Meyer will definitely have selected a few new faces in the green-and-gold last night," Botha predicts.

"Like he's said - and I agree with him 100 percent - he's not there to build for the World Cup, he's there to win test matches.

"That's how I know Heyneke, from when I was 23 or 24, when he started coaching me at the Bulls. That's the type of guy he his - a straightforward guy and amazing coach.

"It's going to be interesting to see what happens in the tests. I think it's going to be a good series and I am looking forward to it.

"From my side, I'm not focused at all at what's happening there. My complete focus is on doing the best for Toulon."

Speaking of which, Toulon take on Clermont in the Top 14 semifinals in Toulouse this afternoon.

The winner of this match play in Saturday's final at the Stade de France.

Botha says that with Clermont's pedigree they start as favourites. "At this stage, we like to be the underdogs.

"Toulon lost to Clermont a couple of years ago in a dramatic game with a drop goal in extra time, so history is coming together again this weekend.

"I truly believe we have the squad and team to do it and win."

And what are his overall impressions of playing in France, the bruising nature of it surely something that he must relish?

"I know it's a physical league but that's my game, hey. The more physical it is, the more goosebumps I get," he says.

'There have been a few scuffles. I did an interview with a French journalist recently who said he was quite surprised I still had a clean record in France.

"I told him I'd learnt from experience and was not here to show everybody how tough I was.

"I must say a lot of French guys try to get under my skin because they know that sometimes I'm short tempered, to try to 'flip the switch'.

"But luckily I've learnt over the last few years to stay calm and focused.

"If there's a scuffle now I just walk away. A citing - or even a ban - just isn't worthwhile."

Today's game between Clermont and Toulon kicks off at 4.30pm SA time.

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