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Rugby World Cup 2019: Springboks rugby hero Naas Botha on Jonny Wilkinson, why being selfish matters, and the negative impact of social media

The Springboks may have started their Rugby World Cup 2019 campaign on the wrong side of a 23-13 result against the defending champions and favourites New Zealand but there’s every reason for the South African faithful to be optimistic for the coming weeks.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus has earned plenty of plaudits for the way he has revolutionised the side and it has caught the eye of legendary South Africa fly half Naas Botha – who scored a remarkable 337 points during his 12-year association with the national side in the 80s and early 90s.

Speaking to Sports Gazette, Botha, who is now plying his trade as head coach for the Indian women’s rugby side, discussed the African nation’s chances in Japan and how England could be the one to ruffle a few feathers in the latter stages of the competition.

“I always thought South Africa would go into the World Cup in good shape but I never thought of us as favourites. That being said, I still think we have a very good attack and a good set of half backs. The only thing I’m not fully convinced of is the midfield even though they haven’t been too bad this year. According to me, Erasmus is doing a very good job coaching this side because you’ve got to look at the progress he’s made since taking the position and seeing how well the team is doing.” said the 61-year-old.

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Naas Botha at the iconic Twickenham Rugby stadium

Having been named the South African Player of the Year on no less than four occasions, Botha certainly knows a thing or two of what makes a good rugby professional and has earmarked Handre Pollard to have a fantastic tournament in Japan. “In my word, Pollard’s one of the best fly halves in the world and could be the one to make a difference for us in the World Cup,” answered Botha when quizzed about who he thinks can guide this team to glory.

He also disparaged the myth of how players need to be selfless in team sports, stating that it’s important for them to be selfish on occasion and own up to some of the responsibilities that come when they wear a jersey at the sport’s elite global competition.

Throwing light on the importance of selfishness, the former Northern Transvaal province captain stated, “It may sound a little selfish, but I want players to play for themselves first. Yes, I know it’s your country and it’s a World Cup, but they should be allowed to play for themselves as they’re the ones putting the hard work in and the ones representing their fans on the field. Because of this selfishness in the South African side, I’ve really enjoyed watching them play over the last couple of years.”

2003 winners England are also predicted to have a good tournament and are expected to make it to the semi-finals. After a good showing in their opener against Tonga, Eddie Jones’ men will be hoping to keep the good times rolling in their upcoming games against the United States and Argentina.

Botha expects them to be fighting for glory until the very end but has warned them to remain professional and do what’s expected of them instead of getting carried away and letting the occasion of playing at a World Cup get the better of them.

He said, “I think England have a very good coaching staff. In the past, I questioned a couple of their players, but looking at their recent performances, I think they’re hitting form at the right time. But what I think they need to remember is that they must not lose their heads and make silly high tackles as it’s extremely costly to play 15 vs 14 in any game.”

Jonny Wilkinson, often seen as the poster boy of THAT famous World Cup final win at the start of the century, recently launched a mental health campaign along with health insurer Vitality. He hopes that sharing his negative experiences during his career will help a number of players fight their internal battles and get their life and professional career back on track.

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Jonny Wilkinson representing the Newcastle Falcons

According to Erasmus, it’s a fantastic initiative by the England legend, but also spoke about how players should deal with the pressure when playing the sport. He believes that they must fully enjoy the occasion and give it their hundred percent and be indifferent towards all the criticism they get on their bad days.

“I back what Jonny Wilkinson is doing. I think it’s a fantastic idea. The most important thing is to go out there and enjoy every minute on the field. Being a professional sportsperson must be the greatest job ever. You don’t need to dress up, put on a tie and live the same routine every day. I think dealing with pressure is not as difficult as people say it is. In any professional sport, you either win or you lose, and it’s something everyone knows, so why be pressurised and think something unpredictable will happen?” remarked Botha.

He then continued to explain how social media is now changing the way players are perceived and it’s causing a lack of motivation in players today. In his opinion, fans and journalists need to stop being so reactionary and tone down their criticism after a few bad games.

Explaining how social media is now having an adverse effect on players, Botha said, “Fans need to be more responsible while lashing out on players on social media. They need to know that the players are out there because they enjoy it and they as fans are also supposed to enjoy the game. I feel bad when people write about players after one bad game and fans go all out on them. It’s highly irresponsible and something that needs to be stopped.”

Pranav Shahaney
English Literature Major. Studies MA Sports Journalism at St. Mary's, Twickenham, aiming to hit the Gold Standard in Shorthand. Words for Sports Gazette. Previously freelanced for newspapers and other media houses. An avid enthusiast of all sports with a slight (heavy) inclination towards the beautiful game of football. Spends a fair share of his day being thankful to have been alive to watch Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at the peak of their powers. Still gutted at India's dismal exit at CWC 2019 and thinks England should have been nowhere close to the trophy. Follow him on Twitter @PrSchadenfreude and on Instagram @pranav_11
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