By Murray Staats
Last week one of South Africa's most revered sporting icons, Naas Botha, reached another milestone as he turned 50.
In a career that spanned 15 years for Northern Transvaal and the Springboks, Naas won six Currie Cups and captained his beloved Blue Bulls on 128 occasions, scoring more than 2 500 points.
Naas's Test career spanned 12 years, but only bore 28 Test caps. He did however score 312 points, second only to Percy Montgomery on the Springbok all-time scoring list.
Hendrik Ignatious Botha was born on February 27, 1958, in the small town of Breyten near the source of the Vaal River and attended Hendrik Verwoed High School in Pretoria.
What a lot of people don't know is that Naas was a talented baseball player during his school years, and harboured professional ambitions, even going so far as to apply for a scholarship in the US.
Baseball's loss turned out to be South African rugby's gain and Naas made his Northern Transvaal debut in 1977 at the age of 19, surrounded by grizzled veterans like Thys Lourens, Louis Moolman and Daan du Plessis.
Naas's confidence, combined with his deadly accurate goalkicking and superlative flyhalf displays soon caught the national selector's eye and he was given his Test debut in 1980 against Hugo Porta's South American's at the Wanderers, which the Morne du Plessis-led Springboks won 24-9.
Naas scored 12 points with his boot that day, including a drop goal, the first of his 17 in Test rugby, which is a Springbok record.
Next up was Billy Beaumont's British Lions and Naas played a pivotal part in dismantling this tough, experienced outfit 3-1 in the series, scoring 25 points in all, prompting the British press to dub him "Nasty Booter".
I'm sure if you asked him, Naas would describe the 1981 protest-marred tour of New Zealand as his biggest disappointment, going down narrowly 2-1 in a series that was ultimately decided by referee Clive Norling's whistle.
Naas's desire to make a living out of his kicking talent led him to the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys in 1983, where he spent time as a specialist kicker, rendering him unavailable for the Boks.
He returned in 1986 to captain the Springboks and help demolish the Cavaliers before eventually winding down his career with a disappointing loss to England in 1992, which drove home how far behind Springbok rugby had fallen during the isolation years of the late 80s.
Naas was criticised throughout his career for not being physical enough and kicking too much but, on closer inspection, players on the outside of him such as Carel du Plessis, Danie Gerber, Ray Mordt and Gerrie Germishuys benefited from his prodigious playmaking skills, providing 47 tries between them for the Boks.
Despite his heroics for the Springboks, outside of Pretoria Naas was a very unpopular player and he didn't exactly endear himself in Durban when, after Natal's upset win in the 1990 Currie Cup final, he sulkily said it would take the province another 100 years to win the coveted cup.
History shows he was left with his boot firmly stuck in his mouth when the Sharks won the cup three more times in the next six years.
Naas's choice of broadcasting as a second career was quite surprising, because when he was interviewed during his playing days you always got the impression that he felt uncomfortable in front of the camera. But now he's turned into one of the most insightful and interesting commentators around.
He's developed a sense of humour and, come half-time, everyone I know remains rooted to their seats to hear Naas's take on the game.
In 2006 he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame, and sits comfortably alongside names like Welsh wizard Gareth Edwards, double World Cup winners John Eales and Tim Horan, French fullback Serge Blanco and All Black skipper Sean Fitzpatrick.
In 2002 Naas was the team manager for the Jake White's Baby Boks, who lifted the under-21 World Cup. Captain Clyde Rathbone said that Naas's presence was a huge inspiration to his squad and I really wish South African rugby would make more of an effort to keep someone of Naas's stature involved, especially at under-19 and under-21 levels.
Stats: www.wikipedia.com and www.genslin.us